Over the last several years, leadership at the SMU Cox School of Business has witnessed an interesting dichotomy unfold.
On one end, business education has never been more competitive nationally—or globally. There are great schools from Dallas to Western Europe to Asia. Yet Cox keeps hearing the same thing from the business leaders with whom they regularly consult. From midsize enterprises all the way up to the Fortune 500, companies are struggling to fill their leadership pipelines.
“We find that there’s a danger of just putting out a lot of really smart graduates who can run pivot tables and do second order derivatives and write marketing plans, but don’t know how to lead,” says Matthew Myers, dean of the Cox School of Business.
That’s why in 2020, after two years of brainstorming with Cox faculty and corporate partners, the Cox School launched a redesigned curriculum, the NextGen Curriculum, with three core pillars as its foundation: experiential learning, analytics and leadership. The first two, experiential learning and analytics, help students build their business acumen. Leadership, on the other hand, while less tangible, is a quality Cox corporate and recruiting partners believe is vitally important in their young hires.
SMU Cox is taking the opportunity to fill the leadership gap not just through its curriculum, but by creating other learning opportunities for students, too. In 2022, the Cox School launched the William S. Spears Institute for Entrepreneurial Leadership, thanks to the largest-ever gift from a non-alumnus in SMU history. Last September, the Spears Institute hosted its first standalone event, which featured an impressive line-up of leaders sharing a single stage. Newly announced inaugural Distinguished Executive in Residence Ken Hersh conducted a fireside chat with Dallas Federal Reserve Bank President Lorie Logan. At the conclusion of the fireside chat, SMU President R. Gerald Turner announced the appointment of entrepreneurs extraordinaire, Megha Tolia and her husband Nirav Tolia, as co-founding directors of the Spears Institute. Each brings extensive entrepreneurial leadership experience to their new roles: Megha Tolia is president and COO of television production company Shondaland, and Nirav Tolia is the founder and former CEO of Nextdoor. The couple shares a commitment to teaching and continual learning, and perhaps most critically, they stand as current-day symbols of successful entrepreneurship and effective leadership.
“Entrepreneurship often starts with a spark, but the opportunity to learn from the experiences of others is key to reaching the finish line,” Spears said. “I cannot imagine two better people than Megha and Nirav Tolia to inspire excitement on the SMU campus and beyond, focus our students’ talents and demonstrate what it takes to succeed.”
As successful leaders and entrepreneurs themselves, the Tolias set a good example to which students can aspire. After beginning her career as a brand manager for Neutrogena, Megha managed SC Johnson businesses like Method, Ecover, Mrs. Meyer’s and Babyganics before stepping in to lead Shonda Rhimes’ TV empire, which has produced everything from “Grey’s Anatomy” to “Scandal” to “Bridgerton.” Nirav started out as employee number 84 at Yahoo before striking out on his own to found companies Epinions and Fanbase before his biggest success to date: Nextdoor, which went public in November 2021 and is now in 90 percent of American neighborhoods. Nirav is currently executive chairman of the technology investment firm Hedosophia.
“The only way to really evolve and get better and work through all the phases of building a business is to be very committed to learning,” says Nirav. “We feel that being intellectually curious and being committed to learning are essential skills in being an entrepreneur.”
“An entrepreneurial mindset goes beyond what you build. It’s so much about the how and the who—and that is what will fuel the innovation of the future,” says Megha. “We are excited about our roles as co-founders of this Institute because we bring very different experiences to the table.”
Building the Institute
The gift from Spears, the founder of the energy conservation platform company Cenergistic, comes at a time when the Cox School is in a period of expansion. The school broke ground on renovations in mid-2022. As those plans move toward completion next summer, the Spears Institute will build on Cox’s legacy as a top producer of young business leaders.
The entrepreneurial aspect adds depth to Cox’s leadership offerings. Those two aspects—entrepreneurship and leadership— run hand in hand, says Myers.
“One of the things Dr. Spears grasps is the importance of understanding how risk is a part of leadership, hence the entrepreneurial leadership title for the institute,” he says. “We talk a lot about innovation, to the point it’s almost a buzzword now, but we don’t talk a lot about risk and how risk plays a part in an individual’s career.”
The Tolias know that well. They’ve experienced first-hand the highs and lows that are a ubiquitous aspect of the entrepreneurship journey. “You need to be comfortable with the ebbs and flows and with revising along the way,” says Megha. “It takes a certain mindset, a certain amount of grit and willpower and persistence. That’s what I love about it. It’s a story that isn’t well- defined—it’s for the entrepreneur to define.”
Adds Nirav: “It’s not exactly the easiest ride in the world, as we both have experienced, but it makes you grow. As you build something, you yourself are building your own character, your own personality, your own experience.”
The Institute will take a multifaceted approach to accelerating the knowledge entrepreneurs need to excel along that journey. The Spears Distinguished Speaker Series will regularly invite global entrepreneurial leaders to present on campus. And the Spears Mentors program will pair undergraduate and graduate students with individual entrepreneurs for mentorship. “Seeking out a mentor can be overwhelming,” says Megha. “This gives students an opportunity to connect with one or more mentors to start to understand what works for them.” Those mentors have a way of serving as both “a window and a mirror,” she says. “You can look at that person and see yourself, but you can also look through that person and see what’s to come.”
Distinguished visiting entrepreneurs and the Endowed Chair in Entrepreneurial Leadership will teach courses for credit. The Spears Internship Program will provide internship opportunities for Spears scholars to work with entrepreneurs in Dallas, Washington D.C., California and internationally. And the Spears Entrepreneurial Certification will develop short courses that allow students to build to a branded Spears Certificate.
“We’ve talked a lot about trying to bring structure to entrepreneurship, because typically when you think about being an entrepreneur, structure is the last thing on your mind,” says Nirav. “But we do believe there are tangible and specific skills that are critical on any entrepreneurial journey.” Some entrepreneurs may see things like seeking funding, speaking to investors, hiring and other disciplines as inherently “big business,” he says. “But it turns out if you don’t understand big business, you can’t understand how to build your own big business.”
The Entrepreneurs Next Door
When Spears set out to find the right person to chair the institute that would bear his name, he didn’t have to look far. In fact, he merely had to look, ahem, next door.
Moving here in 2021, Megha and Nirav—Mr. Nextdoor himself—happened to move in one door down from Spears. They became fast friends, and soon Spears approached them with an idea.
“He is the quintessential entrepreneur and someone we look up to,” says Megha. “And with his generous gift, he is paying it forward and building the future leaders in America. We’re so lucky to be a part of it. And we’re also lucky to be his neighbor and to happen to get to know him on a personal level.”
Beyond the geographic proximity, the choice made sense on many levels. For one, as Myers points out, the Tolias have degrees from Harvard and Stanford. Why not meet in the middle of the country?
“Of course, part of the conversation that Dr. Spears had with them, and we’ve had with them as well, is the importance of the connection between SMU and the Dallas and North Texas community,” Myers says. “They wanted to be a part of that. And it’s a credit to SMU and to the Cox School that our trajectory is one they would like to be affiliated with.”
At a school that is increasingly leaning into experiential learning, putting students in a position to lead and innovate before they’ve even graduated so they may carry that experience forward into their careers, the Tolias are out in front setting an example. “Leading from behind is OK if you’re a sheepdog,” says Myers, encapsulating the ethos of the Institute. “But not if you’re in wolf country.”
“We have a moment in time here in the Metroplex where all of this great creativity, innovation, excitement and optimism are coming together,” says Nirav. “And there is no better time to create a centralized place where students can learn how to be great entrepreneurs.”