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Harvard and Wall Street in a community college: The genesis of the Start-Up Institute

Harvard and Wall Street in a community college: The genesis of the Start-Up Institute

Start-Up Institute

When people say “community college,” it doesn’t usually share a sentence with “Harvard.”

Yet that’s something I do frequently now as a student in Central Wyoming College’s Start-Up Institute, a class that came about through a partnership with the nonprofit entrepreneurial base camp in Jackson, Silicon Couloir.

Sandy Hessler, the primary instructor of this unique course, was formerly an assistant dean at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. Yep.

Community college students in Wyoming can now draw a link to Harvard. ”


Sandy also sold a $265 million company she helped build from the ground up and was the brand manager for a little company you may have heard of: Procter & Gamble.

Not the typical pedigree for a community college professor, right? Well, this isn’t a typical town.
On the logistical side of the class is Liza Millet, a co-founder of Silicon Couloir. Usually a quiet observer in the back of the class, Liza has plenty to contribute, and steps forward to voice her knowledge from time to time.

She does a lot of the organizational legwork, and has an impressive pedigree herself.

Liza has a background on Wall Street that includes turning down a job offer from Goldman Sachs because she was too entrepreneurial for their massive structure. But her financial experience started way before that.

She grew up so fascinated by the stock market that she asked for stock for her 12th birthday. She got her wish manifested as a single stock in IBM. It was fun for her to cash her first $1.10 dividend check as a tween, she said.

After college, Liza joined a Soho startup that was a forerunner to Napster. She then jumped into hedge funds for six years before deciding she wanted to make it to Jackson, where she had worked some summers at the insanely beautiful Triangle X Ranch.

She soon networked into like-minded people in Jackson and started an angel investor group to cultivate the community of entrepreneurs. Before long, that evolved into Silicon Couloir.

By that point, Liza had a personally broken business model.

“I was routinely paying $15 an hour to get a babysitter to buy myself coffee to give entrepreneurs free business advice,” she said.

So she approached Lynne McAuliffe, dean of workforce and community education at CWC to see how open she was to new ideas. After a positive reception, Liza approached Sandy to connect the dots and the Start-Up Institute was born soon thereafter. Lynne had a fire, ready, aim mentality when it came to the program, seeing the value immediately.

Getting funding in her mind was a given, even though it wasn’t there at the outset.

The result is a class that one classmate remarked is the only class he’s ever been in where everyone is psyched to come to class.


This article is the fourth in a series to be published about the Start-Up Institute the way Jackson native Mark Wilcox experiences it in April through June of 2016.