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UND student-run Dakota Venture Group celebrates 10 years of developing the state’s next private equity leaders

Andrew Allen, Greg Syrup and Kevin Lunke
Current Dakota Venture Group President Andrew Allen (middle) joins organization alumni Greg Syrup (left) and Kevin Lunke (right). All three have held leadership roles in the first and only fully student-run venture fund in the nation. Photo by Tyler Ingham.

If you gather current and past members of the Dakota Venture Group (DVG) together in one room, you’re going to hear a lot of financial jargon. Capital. Equity. Returns.

But when current president Andrew Allen joins alumni Greg Syrup and Kevin Lunke around the table, another common language is shared. Opportunity. Connections. Mentors.

Dakota Venture Group—the first and only fully student-run venture fund in the nation—is celebrating its tenth year of providing hands-on private equity investment experiences for UND students. Since it began in October 2006, the program has trained more than 140 future professionals on the ins and outs of performing due diligence, negotiating investment terms and accelerating company growth for high returns.

It’s a lot to learn.

“Your first couple of months as a member are like drinking from a firehose,” said Allen, a senior in entrepreneurship and management. “You have to get caught up with ten years of material.”

Help is close by in the form of former DVG members Syrup and Lunke, who currently serve as entrepreneur coaches for the Center for Innovation and managers of the 701 Angel Fund, a North Dakota angel venture capital firm.

“Andrew will come up to us ask, ‘Hey, how did you do this?’ And we’re more than willing to help,” Syrup said. “The founding DVG members are people we still talk to today. So from the very first people to the people in it today, there is still a connection and a conversation that flows all the way through. I think that’s probably why it’s been so successful.”

Experiential learning

UND Center for Innovation Foundation CEO and DVG Advisor Bruce Gjovig says his board chairman, now-retired venture capitalist Bart Holaday, wanted to see what difference it would make in students’ lives if they learned private equity investment when they’re in college—something that most people learn in their 30s or 40s. So, with a $300,000 donation, he created Dakota Venture Group.

“It was done as an experiment,” Gjovig recalled. “He said, ‘Well, if they lose all the money, you know, we tried. But let’s see what can happen.’”

And it turned out to be a very successful experiment. Those who are accepted into the program are responsible for driving two funds. One is the Harvest Fund, a for-profit venture capital fund focused on early stage ventures in high-growth regional sectors like technology, energy and medicine. The other, the Innovation Fund, is a non-profit fund reserved for student ventures.

“I really got catapulted into the business environment,” Syrup said, who served as president during his time in DVG. “I was meeting people, having good conversations and getting to connect with entrepreneurs and alumni who cared about what we were doing.”

Syrup’s enthusiasm for the project was easy to pass on.

“Applying to DVG was the best decision I made in college,” Lunke said, who joined in 2012 after Syrup pitched the program in one of his business classes. “I wanted to find one of the best experiential learning opportunities out there for a student. For example, having to seek out investors and ask them each to commit a minimum of $50,000 for us to deploy into early stage companies provided me with a one-of-a-kind experience that I don’t think I could have had anywhere else.”

“It’s so much an art form,” Gjovig added. “It’s not something you can do through simple financial modeling or financial analysis. It really needs to be done by a much more comprehensive view of entrepreneurship and what goes into venture development and growth.”

2017 Dakota Venture Group
The Dakota Venture Group (DVG) is celebrating its 10th year of providing hands-on private equity investment experiences for UND students. Since it began in October 2006, the program has trained more than 140 future professionals on the ins and outs of performing due diligence, negotiating investment terms and accelerating company growth for high returns. Above is the 2017 DVG student team. Photo courtesy of the DVG.

Real-world applications

Syrup and Lunke are using what they learned in DVG to make a difference here in North Dakota. They worked with Gjovig to help develop the 701 Angel Fund as a way to provide access to much-needed capital.

“If you look at North Dakota in comparison to metropolitan areas, the industries are much different and the population density is much different,” Syrup said. “We wanted to make sure that lifeline was there for companies and entrepreneurs in the area so they didn’t have to move.  A lot of businesses have relocated outside of the Midwest in order to grow their business, but we’re here to prove that we can do that here, too.”

Lunke said the 701 Angel Fund also allows businesses outside of the state to actively seek opportunities here. “So it’s both for entrepreneurs in North Dakota, but also making the state a better hub for other companies to come to North Dakota,” he explained.

Past members are making their mark on North Dakota in other ways. When former DVG President Emily O’Brien stepped down in December to take on a freshman legislator role in Bismarck in January, she may not have known how valuable her knowledge would be.

“It turns out, this session has very critical angel capital legislation, House Bill 1045. She was the resident expert in the Legislature because of her experience in DVG,” Gjovig said, unable to hide his pride.

Growing and growing

As the current president, Allen knows it’s his responsibility to protect the legacy of his predecessors.

“I want this group to keep moving forward. Turnover is tough with us being students and only staying about two years. That’s been a challenge,” Allen said. “But we’re looking to keep things moving forward consistently and make smart investments.”

DVG is always looking for a blend of applicants, not just those from business and finance. The group seeks expertise in areas like law for legal matters, as well those studying high-growth industry areas like energy, technology and medicine.

Allen’s advice for those unsure of diving into the arena of venture development: “Go for it.”

“No doubt we made plenty of mistakes along the way, but we had the chance to learn from those mistakes,” Syrup said. “The environment was definitely one of the best to be in.”