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McNair Institute at USC: New training ground for entrepreneurs

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By Marc Rapport

After putting some 350 bright, young students through college at the University of South Carolina, Bob McNair has turned his sights to helping empower free enterprise through academia.

The billionaire philanthropist, businessman and founder-owner of the NFL’s Houston Texans was in town Nov. 10 to announce his latest gift to his alma mater, $8 million to create the McNair Institute for Entrepreneurism and Free Enterprise.

Robert and Janice McNair, whose foundation donated $8 million to the University of South Carolina to create the McNair Institute for Entrepreneurism and Free Enterprise. (Photo/Provided)The Robert and Janice McNair Foundation also has committed $5 million to the creation of a similar institute at Columbia College, where Orangeburg native Janice McNair attended college. Bob McNair is from North Carolina and graduated from USC in 1958, where he was student body president his senior year.

The institutes will focus on providing entrepreneurial skills along with a pragmatic understanding of how the real world works. It’s also about influencing it. Bob McNair said the USC institute also will be a kind of think tank, where policy is studied while students are prepared to compete. It’s about combining free market ideas with academia.

McNair intends the institute to help jolt a business climate that currently results in “a lot of educated people who are unemployed or underemployed.” How?  By jump-starting the nation’s economy with a pipeline of dynamic thinkers educated in the philosophy and core values of the free market system.

“This is about preparing people to succeed as entrepreneurs. It’s going to be part economics and part human behavior. To succeed you have to understand free markets and free enterprise,” McNair said in an interview before he and USC President Harris Pastides spoke to a group gathered at the Booker T. Washington Auditorium on the Columbia campus.

“It’s like football, you have to know what the rules are,” McNair said. McNair made his fortune starting and growing hugely successful trucking and energy businesses. He said new businesses may provide perhaps the best opportunity for many people starting out, especially at USC, which he said doesn’t get the same level of recruiting attention by major corporations as do major schools in other parts of the country.

The playing fields he sees are diverse, from service industries to food services to health care to wealth management.

“We just want to stimulate the thinking of young people. We want to teach them how to add value to their skills. It’s their future that’s at stake,” he said.

How will he know there’s been success? “We’ll look at what’s happening with the graduates, what kind of successes they’re enjoying,” McNair said. “We’ll look at whether we’ve keyed in on the right areas and always think about better ways to help them go out and compete in the marketplace.”

USC is currently in the process of hiring a faculty director for the institute, which will be an interdisciplinary program offering coursework and projects aimed at helping students create new businesses, discover new industries and create new products.

“Through intensive exploration and study, students develop an excitement about entrepreneurism and a sense of the economic opportunity it offers them and the national and global economy,” the faculty director’s job description said. 

The couple’s foundation is also funding institutes at other schools around the country, including Rice University in Houston and Northwood University in Midland, Mich.

The McNairs began paying for college educations in his hometown Forest City and Rutherford County, N.C., in 1989 before expanding the McNair Scholarship programs to other schools, including USC, where it provides full rides to gifted out-of-state students. The couple’s other donations have included $100 million to the Baylor College of Medicine. 

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