Thom Ruhe awarded Elon University Medal for Entrepreneurial Leadership

Ruhe, president and CEO of NC IDEA, was honored by the university for his career and work with the foundation's commitments to helping North Carolinians realize their full entrepreneurial potential.

Thom Ruhe, CEO and president of NC IDEA is also an entrepreneur, investor, and philanthropist who spent the first half of his career working on a plethora of startups and high-growth companies. For the second half, he has turned his focus to help fledgling entrepreneurs along their path.

Ruhe shared the lessons he has learned along the way and how they are fueling his passion to support fellow entrepreneurs on Thursday night as he was honored by Elon University and the Doherty Center for Creativity, Innovation and Entrepreneurship with the university’s Medal for Entrepreneurial Leadership. The medal recognizes an individual who is a leader in his or her industry and who exemplifies the values of Elon University – integrity, innovation and creativity, passion for lifelong learning, and a commitment to building a dynamic community.

“In reflecting on my career, it’s been about 35 years now, I can really break it up into two stages,” Ruhe said to the hundreds in attendance in LaRose Digital Theater in the Koury Business Center, home to the Love School of Business, as he was recognized and presented with the medal. “There was my entrepreneur life and that was the first 20 years of my career where I bounced around and was involved in startups, high-growth companies, venture capital-backed companies and got first-hand experience of learning the hard way. I’ve got the bumps, bruises and scars to prove it.”

Thom Ruhe receiving the Elon University Medal for Entrepreneurial Leadership from Love School of Business Dean Raghu Tadepalli on Oct. 7, 2021.

For the second half of his career, he spent seven years with the Kauffman Foundation directing programs on entrepreneurship education, mentoring, access to capital and fostering entrepreneurial ecosystems for the foundation. Along with those duties, he led the Kauffman Labs for Enterprise Creation, a school committed to advancing “community-deployed, experiential-based entrepreneurship education, with a focus on underserved populations.”

“I often think of entrepreneurship and hope in the same thought,” said President Connie Ledoux Book in presenting Ruhe with the medal. During her introduction of Ruhe, she gave a quote of his when reflecting on his work with NC IDEA: “’We are rising to the moment and daring to be optimistic whilst rolling up our sleeves. Beyond inspiration, we are investing perspiration to find not only new ways to engage, but new communities with which to engage.’ I love that.”

Book said, “At Elon, we dare to be optimistic, and we are not afraid of the hard work needed to create positive change.”

Doherty Center Director Alyssa Martina was excited to recognize Ruhe with the medal. “At Elon, we work hard to develop a growth mindset and encourage our students across campus to act entrepreneurially by reframing problems as opportunities and seeing the world through a changemaking lens,” Martina said. “This is very much in alignment with what Thom advocates for through his remarkable work at NC IDEA. We salute him for the outstanding work he is doing to advance entrepreneurship and economic development in our state.”

Ruhe joined NC IDEA nearly six years ago with the intent of helping the budding entrepreneur, as well as creating more jobs. That objective has become even more paramount following the “weird times” created by the COVID-19 pandemic.

He cited the recent report from N.C. Secretary of State Elaine F. Marshall claiming nearly 96,000 new business creations were filed between January and June 2021 and projecting over 191,000 startups by year’s end, both records for the state.

But while these numbers of startups are impressive; it will be in vain if there isn’t a comprehensive effort to support them. Ruhe said that with so many people starting something he would like to have “less sacrificial lambs and shoot for higher margins.”

Thom Ruhe, president and CEO of NC IDEA, right, with President Connie Ledoux Book, left, and Raghu Tadepalli, dean of the Love School of Business.

“If we can throw a billion dollars of incentives to a company that promises 3,000 jobs, what can we do for those of you on the front line organically creating 70,000 jobs?” Ruhe said. “It’s great to have records … but if we don’t support our startups, we’re going to be breaking other records in 12, 18 and 24 months from now that’s going to be the number of failures we have.”

Providing that support for companies is what drives him in his work with NC IDEA. In addressing the crowd at the event, he gave an example of Spoonflower, a Durham-based fabric and home décor company, which received a $50,000 grant from NC IDEA. In June, the company was acquired by Shutterfly for $225 million.

“What I would like to see more of, if long term we are going to build a culture in North Carolina, is more payback, more pay it forward,” Ruhe said.

Ruhe said both entrepreneurship and philanthropy have informed his worldview because of what can be accomplished from an economic empowerment standpoint. With some of the biggest problems boiling down to economics, philanthropy serves as the prime way to properly address these problems.

“I think charity exists to alleviate suffering,” Ruhe said. “But philanthropy should be working on the causes of suffering. Philanthropy, in my opinion, should be looking at why are there so many homeless people, why is there such great food insecurity.”

Using other social issues, such as the George Floyd murder from the summer of 2020 to the Jan. 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol as his bookend examples, Ruhe said that our differences are being weaponized against us.

The solution, Ruhe said, is entrepreneurship because by nature of what they do, entrepreneurs are “optimists” and “capable of critical thought.” Entrepreneurship is key to leveling the playing field and entrepreneurs are the “economic first responders,” Ruhe said.

“They have an embedded optimism that gives them the energy to get out of bed every day and go do something, namely start a company that will create jobs, that will strengthen communities, that will diversify economic participation. That’s what they do and that’s why I think it’s an antidote to what’s going on right now,” he said.

Kobie Williams ’22 giving remarks during the Elon University Medal for Entrepreneurial Leadership event.

Two Elon seniors, entrepreneurship major and co-chair of the Black Entrepreneur Initiative Kobie Williams ’22 and computer science major Angy Aguillar ’22, both gave remarks during the presentation of the medal.

“You are the raison d’être,” Ruhe said to Williams and Aguillar following their remarks. “The reason for being. That’s what university exists to do – to instill that kind of mindset that you both shared tonight, to put it out there, to have the courage.”