The Making of a CIE Donor: Russ Nash

In 1982, Russ Nash graduated from Cal Poly with a degree in Business Administration, leaving with the dreams that everyone at the time had: working for a big firm. Nash successfully landed that dream job and began working for a Fortune Top 20 company.

Flash forward a few years, though, and Nash decided to walk away from that company and build his own. In the past 32 years of working for himself, not only has he done so with great enthusiasm, but also with great impact on fellow entrepreneurs at his alma mater.

“I got involved with the CIE from the very beginning. Jon York and Lou Tornatzky had a vision to start the CIE and they got a hold of a friend of mine, Jeff Witous,” Nash said. “He called about 20 of his friends and said ‘Hey, we need to get together and hear these professors out,’ and from that point they basically said ‘If you guys believe in the vision, we need a commitment of time and we need money now.’ So, I got involved in that on day one.”

The Cal Poly Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship (CIE) was founded 10 years ago, but Nash’s years of experience before that was valuable for his program involvement. 

Nash’s specialty since becoming self-employed is in small businesses, which he had previously done mentoring for on a small-scale basis. He also has a strong passion for public education, specifically for Cal Poly, and had spent time working with his children’s school board. When Nash took on his CIE role, not only was he well-prepared to help student entrepreneurs, he was thrilled to do so.

“My favorite part of working with student entrepreneurs is the level of excitement,” he explained. “They are so fired up and so excited that it’s contagious. It’s just really something special.”

Along with his mentorship and guidance of these young innovators, his support has also come in the form of financial aid.

“Investing in the startups is a combination of a gamble and a passion, and the hope is that at some point in time one or two out of 10 will actually make some money,” Nash said. “But initially, the real goal at this level of [CIE] startups is to help the program go forward.”

Nash notes that had the CIE been around when he was a student, it would have made his self-employment career easier; however, there really wasn’t a market for such a program at the time.

“When I left school, the bottom line was that you had to leave San Luis Obispo because there were no jobs here. You went north or you went south,” Nash explained. “Now there’s enough infrastructure in town to start and grow a large business, and this is a place people dream about living, so it’s a very nice place to do it.”

Luckily, people like Nash helped the CIE grow, allowing countless students to fulfill their entrepreneurial dreams through mentorship, access to investors and other entrepreneurs, as well as tangible resources to launch them forward.

Over the past 10 years of Nash’s support, not only has the CIE gained a lot from him, but he, too, has gained a lot from the experience. One thing he learned is the value in giving back.

“I think alumni should follow in my footsteps of supporting Cal Poly in general. They should find their niche in what they can get involved with–and we should give back to the future generation,” Nash prompted. “Getting involved in the CIE just happens to be in my wheelhouse. I enjoy it and others should do that, too, if that’s their expertise.”

That’s the advice Nash has for his fellow Cal Poly alumni, but what is his go-to advice for the students he mentors? It’s to take advantage of the human capital around them.

“What I would say to a young entrepreneur who is just starting to build their company is to look around at all the people throughout the CIE, the older teams and the volunteers who come back, and ask and ask and ask more questions,” Nash said. “Starting a business from scratch is difficult, but that’s okay. You just need to know what you’re getting into.”

If you are ready to get involved with the CIE and make an impact on entrepreneurship and innovation like Nash, consider donating to the program, becoming a mentor or joining our Founder’s Circle today.