Standing amidst 54,000 square feet of unadorned concrete in a long-empty fifth-floor space of the Alvin Sherman Library at Nova Southeastern University, John Wensveen experienced what could fairly be called his Field of Dreams moment.
Wensveen—a Vancouver-born serial entrepreneur and academic then pulling double duty as a Vice Provost at Miami Dade College and CEO of the air carrier startup business plan consulting firm Airline Visions—turned and asked the recruiters from the embryonic Alan B. Levan NSU Broward Center of Innovation one simple question: “Will I really have the opportunity to design and build out this space the way it needs to be?”
“The reply was, ‘Yes, absolutely,’” Wensveen tells OZ. “And it might sound strange—I mean, I didn’t have any real idea of what the actual nature of the role would be—but it felt like a dream about to come true.”
Three years later, the echoes of the If you build it, they will come Ray Kinsella once entertained in Iowa: Today, the Levan Center—with Wensveen at the helm as Chief Innovation Officer and Executive Director—is a kinetic, visionary hub of business creation and evolution.
Nestled in a South Florida “tech gateway” that currently boasts the most startup activity in the U.S. as well as a growing army of 80,000 information and communication technology workers, the Center not only “provides entrepreneurs with access to…legal, marketing, finance, accounting, human resources, and self-care management” service providers but also houses a military-grade cybersecurity range; a Level:5 space dock; a state of the art media production studio; pitch, huddle, and conference rooms; a commercial catering kitchen for events; and much, much more.
Not for nothing has the Levan Center been dubbed “the world’s first theme park for entrepreneurs.”
“It’s a giant network collision station,” Wensveen says. “We’re slingshotting entrepreneurs into the orbit of representatives from academia, industry, and government as well as funders, wraparound service providers, and other essential resources every day. And then we connect it to the rest of the world virtually so that anybody can access certain programs, events, or types of services. All under one roof. There are almost certainly talent and resources combining in ways here right now that we have no idea about. That’s what’s new and exciting about the Levan Center.”
The end goal is to engender local, regional, national, and international impact through breakthrough ideation, new company formation, the scaling of early-stage and young startup companies, technology creation—and new talent skills pipeline to support all of it. Eventually, Wensveen hopes, South Florida will be a gateway between North America and innovation-minded enterprises and nations across the globe.
It is a project and scope that Wensveen is uniquely positioned to conceive and execute. This is, after all, a man who in his youth wanted to either become a commercial airline pilot or start his own airline—and then split the difference and did both, picking up Masters and Ph.D. degrees in International Air Transport and Business from Cardiff University (United Kingdom) and a B.A. in Geography and Transportation Land Use Planning from the University of Victoria (Canada) along the way and eventually serving in prestigious positions throughout the industry. Wensveen remains an External Instructor at the International Air Transport Association (IATA) and a Certified Instructor at the Turkish Aviation Academy (Turkish Airlines) and is the author of two popular industry books Air Transportation: A Management Perspective and Wheels Up: Airline Business Plan Development.
The development process has given him an opportunity to reflect upon his own founder’s journey, one he describes as “a highway from point A to point B,” but more akin to “a lot of backroads that led to dead ends.”
“Failure is part of the process and a good thing—as long as you acknowledge and learn from it,” Wensveen says. “But that doesn’t mean there isn’t room to improve the path for today’s rising entrepreneurs. So, as we established the Levan Center I thought, ‘If I could redo my entire journey over again, but could have access to resources that would streamline and accelerate it, what would that look like?’”
The distillation of this self-inventory of hard-won knowledge can be seen in the beating heart of the Center: Four “Core Programs”—Ideate, Incubate, Accelerate, and Post-Accelerate—which offer participants expert guidance “from the birth of an idea through a successful exit or global expansion, providing programs, events, and wraparound services to entrepreneurs and early-stage startups for the buildout and scaleup of their business.”
The Levan Center, through this lens, allows ambitious individuals with promising ideas access to the tools they don’t necessarily know they need. To constant assessment and guidance from seasoned experts and mentors. To synergistic networking. To potential funding sources without all the usual trials and tribulations.
“For me personally, helping young entrepreneurs be proactive rather than reactive at every stage of the journey they’re on is a way to give back to communities that have given me so much throughout my life,” Wensveen says. “The fact that I get to do it from a one-of-a-kind launchpad like the Leven Center is just an amazing blessing.”
As the inaugural sponsor of the Accelerate cohort—and, in fact, the inaugural sponsor of any of the Levan Center programs—OZ is in on the ground floor, so to speak. And Wensveen believes in this South Florida tech innovation he’s found a kindred spirit.
“We purposely didn’t go out to seek sponsorships until we knew that we had a cake that was baked, and the icing was on it,” Wensveen says. “When we had every ready to go—including the sprinkles—OZ was a natural partner. And I use the word partner very intentionally. This isn’t a vendor relationship of convenience. It’s a long-term strategy co-investment with a company that has a stellar relationship, does incredibly innovative work across the board, and is on a path that is complementary to that of the Levan Center. We’re grateful to have OZ on board. I really think years from now people are going to say, ‘Oh, we were part of the OZ Accelerate cohort’ and that’s going to mean something real to people.”
As it races toward the close of its first full official year in operation, the Levan Center has already surpassed most of the dreams set out in its first five-year plan.
“My dream from the very beginning was to build the biggest, baddest incubator and accelerator ever built,” Wensveen says. “Early on, we had a lot of people telling us we were taking on too much—that we had too many lofty goals. But when someone says to me, ‘You can’t do that,’ my response is, ‘Watch me.’ I’m going to go all out to prove ‘em wrong. And we can do that because, to us, this isn’t a job. It’s a way of life. We’re game-changers and we’re here to make it happen—for ourselves and others.”