Building on its commitment to prepare socially responsible leaders for the business world, the University of St. Thomas in Minnesota is turning to one of the nation’s foremost ethics experts – and one of its own – to lead its renowned business school. The university has chosen Dr. Laura Dunham to be the next dean of Opus College of Business, officially succeeding the retiring Dr. Stefanie Lenway on July 1.
Dunham has spent the last five years as associate dean of Opus' Schulze School of Entrepreneurship, capturing national attention as the school has risen to become a top-25 undergraduate entrepreneurship program. Under her leadership, the Schulze School experienced a nearly threefold increase in the percentage of incoming first-year students declaring an entrepreneurship major, tripled the number of credit hours taught within the Entrepreneurship department and tripled the number of students participating in the school's co-curricular programs. Entrepreneurship also has grown to become the fifth largest major at St. Thomas.
Dunham partnered with major benefactors, including Best Buy founder Dick Schulze and Ron Fowler, CEO of Liquid Investments, to launch or grow groundbreaking programs with a national following. The programs include the Schulze Innovation Scholarship, e-Fest and the Fowler Business Competitions. ”These programs complement the outstanding work being done in our classrooms by our talented faculty,” Dunham said, “and help our students continue to build the knowledge, skills and confidence they need to be innovators and people of impact in whatever fields they enter. ” Together, the four competitions she oversees at the Schulze School award over $400,000 in scholarship and seed capital each year.
During Dunham’s tenure, the Schulze School of Entrepreneurship went from unranked to being recognized by the Princeton Review as the No. 23 undergraduate entrepreneurship program in the country, as well as the nation’s top Catholic and Minnesota’s No. 1 undergraduate program. The program is also recognized as one of the top 3 undergraduate entrepreneurship programs for schools with fewer than 10,000 students.
“I think we can easily be a top 10 Catholic business school,” she recently told St. Thomas community members during a town hall presentation. “At the Opus College, we build on a foundation of excellence. We have an outstanding faculty and staff that are dedicated to delivering high-impact educational experiences for our students, and creating meaningful value for our alumni, business partners and community.”
“Dr. Dunham has shown a remarkable ability to set strategy and achieve goals,” Executive Vice President and Provost Eddy Rojas said in announcing her appointment. "As St. Thomas aspires to become a top 10 national Catholic university, she is equipped to help distinguish our institution given the Schulze School’s growing impact and visibility under her leadership."
Setting Opus apart
Dunham has been with St. Thomas for 19 years, starting as an assistant professor in the Entrepreneurship Department and rising to associate professor. She served as the Opus College of Business faculty vice chair and chair, and was promoted to chair of the Entrepreneurship Department.
She started her own business in her 20s, after earning a Bachelor of Arts in English and journalism from Miami University. She holds a Master of Business Administration and a doctorate in entrepreneurship and ethics from the Darden School of Business at the University of Virginia.
Her focus on principled leadership, which has defined Dunham's career, is also what distinguishes St. Thomas and its students. In fact, she created a consortium with entrepreneurship professors at Stanford and Duke to train scholars and business leaders on how to better incorporate the ethical dimension of entrepreneurship.
"What I've learned is how lucky we are here at St. Thomas to be able to wear our hearts and souls on our sleeves and say it's not good enough that our students come out as astute business people; they also have to be aware of their responsibilities to others," Dunham said. "Our mission – these values that bind us around supporting the development of highly principled business leaders who care and are committed to advancing the common good – it's the fuel behind everything we do here."
"St. Thomas has spent several years building a deep bench of strong leaders across the university, and Dr. Dunham has certainly established herself as one of them,” said Mark Zesbaugh, president of Entrepreneurial 180 and a member of St. Thomas’ Board of Trustees. “Her entrepreneurial mindset combined with a proven track record of success and dedication to our mission makes her the perfect fit to continue leading this college into a new era."
Dunham has also been actively engaged in the university’s role in advancing equity and inclusion on campus and across society. She challenged her team to build new partnerships between the Schulze School and key players in the community to combat racism and expand entrepreneurial opportunity to emerging business leaders of color. As a result, the Schulze School has formed new relationships with organizations such as the Black Chamber of Minnesota, Black Entrepreneur Spaces, the Latino Economic Development Center, African Development Center and the Neighborhood Development Center.
These efforts have resulted in real impact. The Schulze School has significantly increased the number of women and people of color who serve as judges and mentors in the school’s co-curricular programming, increased faculty diversity and the diversity of class speakers and attracted a more diverse pool of candidates for key scholarship programs.
"There's no way we're going to solve our community and our world's problems without businesses getting involved and starting to measure social good as seriously as they measure economic good that they create,” Dunham added. “Opus students, faculty, staff and alumni are leaders in that work."
This spring, Dunham spent her Saturdays in the classroom running a free, six-week boot camp for aspiring entrepreneurs who face economic barriers. In the first cohort of Opus' newly launched Community Entrepreneurship Program, 90% of the students identify as either Black, Indigenous or people of color, 80% are women and all demonstrate high financial need.
Bridging classroom to career
Dunham is a trusted and sought-after consultant, with major corporations such as Polaris, U.S. Bank, 3M and Medtronic seeking her expertise, as well as leading organizations in the Twin Cities business community, from the Women's Health Leadership Trust to the Metro Regional Arts Council.
Nearly 40% of St. Thomas undergraduate students are business majors, and Opus is viewing student learning through an interdisciplinary lens. Having co-founded a studio theater early on in her career, Dunham has advocated for collaborative experiences at St. Thomas, designing a two-day Freshman Innovation Immersion workshop where she's seen aspiring engineers join forces with finance majors and marketers to plan how they'll bring their innovations to market.
Credited with rethinking curriculum and co-curriculars as dean, Dunham is tasked with putting her entrepreneurial skill set to work to grow St. Thomas' part-time MBA program, which is ranked No. 83 nationally by U.S. News & World Report. Designed for working professionals, Opus has redesigned its MBA to better meet the needs of students and companies reskilling amid rapidly changing technologies and demand for flexibility.
"Competition for students in both undergraduate and graduate business education continues to become more intense," Lenway said. "The Opus College needs an entrepreneurial leader, who will continue to build a culture of innovation in all corners of the college. Laura is this entrepreneurial leader with deep experience creating programs in the Schulze School that have received national recognition."
Lenway has led Opus College of Business as dean since 2014. During her tenure, Lenway led a strategic focus to principled leadership, entrepreneurship and innovation in the business of health care. In Rojas’ letter to the St. Thomas community, he thanked Lenway for her services and added that “Through a transformative redesign of our MBA programs, she’s opened new doors for the college and its students.”
Although she is leaving her role as dean, Lenway will return to Opus faculty and join the college's Business in a Digital World Initiative team as a faculty fellow for external outreach and business development.