UVA Engineering teamed up with Eric Pike and Will Pike, a 2016 electrical engineering graduate, on an idea.

The University of Virginia School of Engineering & Applied Science has a well-established program for promoting student entrepreneurship, including Works in Progress, a peer-driven community of practice designed to encourage a founder’s mindset among participants; The Lighthouse, a dedicated workspace for entrepreneurs; and a series of courses embedded in the School’s engineering business minor and the University’s technology entrepreneurship minor.

Together, the entrepreneurship activities managed by the Department of Engineering & Society have nurtured hundreds of student entrepreneurs and led to multiple local, state and national awards for engineering students’ innovative business ideas.

After Will’s graduation in 2016 from the electrical engineering program, the Pike family saw an opportunity to do even more.

Will teamed up with his father, J. Eric Pike, Chairman and Chief Executive Officer of the North Carolina-based Pike Corporation, which provides engineering, construction, and maintenance services for electric and gas utility companies across the United States. Together, they brainstormed a unique program that would bring their own entrepreneurial experiences to bear, positioning student entrepreneurs for success in getting their ideas to the marketplace.

Almost a year later, the Pike Engineering Entrepreneurship Fellows Program is preparing for its April 26 and 27 celebration. During the event, the first Pike Fellows entrepreneurial teams will present their projects to a panel of business and financial judges. The five teams will compete for a $50,000 award.

UVA Engineering talked with the Pikes about their inspiration for the Pike Fellows Program and their hopes for its future.

Q: Will, your family is from North Carolina and established its company there several generations ago. What drew you up to UVA, and what were some of the memorable experiences for you here?

A: I was fortunate that our high school had an engineering program, so I got a taste of it early on, and I really knew that’s what I wanted to do for my undergraduate studies. Like many high school students, I toured several different universities. When I set foot on UVA’s Grounds for a tour, however, it was just a fundamentally different experience.

During my time in the Engineering School, I was involved in the Technology Leaders Program, a program that helps undergraduates develop leadership in addressing society’s complex challenges through a multidisciplinary lens. That experience showed me and my family the potential of program-focused support in the Engineering School and really led us to want to get involved more once I graduated from the University.

Another highlight of my engineering experience at UVA was the fourth-year capstone program. This program presented our family’s first opportunity to support the University by sponsoring a year-long project with our engineering business. My team developed a safety analytics tool for the electrical transmission construction space. It was a defining experience to be able to build something that was marketable and had real value for our client. Although it was not starting a new company from scratch, our project embodied the entrepreneurial spirit and resulted in a commercially viable product.

Q: Eric you represent the third generation in a family-owned business, so entrepreneurship must be in your blood. What is the story of your family’s company, and how do you keep the entrepreneurial culture alive in a 70-year-old company?

A: Our story began in 1945 with Floyd S. Pike, who founded the company.  He started with six men and a single contract to build power lines for a North Carolina utility. My father, Joe Pike, took over the business in 1975 and grew the business to nearly 3,000 people working across the southeastern United States.  I began running the business in 1998 and have steered the company through a phase of private equity ownership, a 10-year period as an NYSE public company, and now back to a family held private company. We have grown to a national footprint from Hawaii to the east coast as well as performing international projects. Will joined the company full time in 2017 and is quickly progressing through the ranks. He manages a portion of our engineering and construction divisions in Florida.

While the Pike family of companies is no longer a new organization, we have reinvented and grown the business many times over our 73-year history. Each time we expand our service offerings, grow our operational footprint, or upgrade to new technology, the entrepreneurial spirit is crucial. It pervades our culture and provides the calculated optimism and tenacity to successfully do things that haven’t been done before.

Q: Will, once you left UVA, what gave your family the inspiration to give back to the Engineering School’s entrepreneurship program?

A: I had a fantastic experience during my four years, which inspired my Dad and me to find a way to provide high-impact support to students at the University after I graduated. We discussed how we could give back to UVA Engineering and decided to establish a program to bring together student entrepreneurs with access to mentorship and funding, giving students an early exposure to the funding arena but in a safe way. Often, funding for entrepreneurial ventures gets very predatory very quickly. We wanted to give students an opportunity to get some initial funding without strings attached.

We also wanted to focus on student entrepreneurs who had ideas that were marketable and have commercial value to an identified customer base. We worked with the entrepreneurship and advancement teams at UVA Engineering to bring this program together.

Q: Eric, what aspects of the Pike Engineering Entrepreneurship Fellows Program do you think are most important to making a difference for student entrepreneurs?

A: We select teams based on a competitive process, focusing on teams that have ideas that could actually be successful in the marketplace. Then we provide the teams $5,000 in seed funding, which gives them the resources to prototype their ideas and get feedback from mentors throughout the academic year. At the end of the year, one team is awarded the $50,000 prize during a two-day competition and celebration.

Part of the beauty of this event is the non-cash prize for participating teams. Even if teams don’t walk away with the $50,000 prize, they get several hours of time during the event to work with the panel of judges. I am excited to have such a great group of judges joining us this year, most of whom are UVA alumni. All of the judges have had extraordinarily successful careers in the financial and technology sectors and were excited by the opportunity to mentor the student entrepreneurs and reconnect with the University. These judges are also folks with capital behind them, so even teams that don’t win the prize may attract investors or potential customers for their products.

Q: What do you hope the long-term impact of this program will be?

A: (Eric) We don’t think about it in terms of how many people we will have filling the room at the competition on April 27. We think about whether we have a team that is able to take the $50,000 prize and really leverage it to grow a business. We also want all of the teams to be able to gain valuable insights from the judges and mentors that can be used to take the next steps in their businesses. We hope everyone’s knowledge will be elevated and some common pitfalls that early entrepreneurs often face can be avoided.

(Will) The central theme of the Pike Fellows Program is the focus on students’ learning and creating a friendly environment for student entrepreneurs. It’s not about handing students term sheets from investors. It’s about really educating the student participants on business practices, how funding works and the importance of networking.

(Eric) From a longer-term perspective, this is our family’s first foray into leadership-level giving at UVA, and it’s an opportunity for us to see how it works to develop a program with direct impact for students. We look forward to continuing to support the University in the years to come.

William and J. Eric Pike

2016 UVA electrical engineering graduate Will Pike (left) and his father, J. Eric Pike, lead the North Carolina-based Pike Corporation and envisioned a unique program that would provide a path for success for entrepreneurial-minded students.