UMRF Ventures Inc. is a wholly-owned subsidiary of the University of Memphis Research Foundation dedicated to supporting students, cultivating a talent pipeline for organizations in the City of Memphis, and enhancing the capacity of the research infrastructure at the UofM.
Student debt is a $1.64 trillion problem that threatens the global standing of the U.S. economy and the future of our workforce. With 69% of students today taking loans and the average debt per student at $31,172, it is a crisis requires an uncommon solution and one that universities need to focus on now.
In every city, there are great companies and talented individuals working to advance our economy, grow opportunity and push the boundary of what is possible. This prosperity is in sharp contrast to the income inequality that defines urban life in many places. Urban-based higher education institutions often see this dichotomy manifest in the brutal realities that face our students – low retention and graduation rates among those who most desperately need the opportunities that a degree affords. Wrestling with this challenge is a defining feature of all educational institutions, and it is one that the University of Memphis (UofM) has decided to directly address.
The UofM leveraged the power of American industry in collaboration with the dynamic innovation of higher education to create a public-private partnership called UMRF Ventures, Inc. Ventures is an innovative model that brings together the students who will define the future workforce for our city, impacting the local economy and the companies that call it home. Through this relationship, we are negating the impact of declining public funding of higher education by bringing back to the region corporate dollars that previously had gone overseas. This is empowering the next generation of professionals by eliminating student loan debt before it ever starts.
An Uncommon Solution:
The University of Memphis has long understood the value of public-private partnerships. These mutually beneficial alliances and initiatives are best represented by the University’s FedEx Institute of Technology (FIT). As an emerging technologies research institution that serves as the applied innovation arm for the UofM, FIT connects the research mission of the University to the corporate community, enabling some of our greatest research collaborations. It was in this unique environment that the idea of UMRF Ventures was born. In order to solve a global workforce challenge and to stay competitive with companies located in more attractive markets, the University has changed the conversation about what talent development means for the companies that rely on its graduates for their workforce.
Every corporation needs ongoing tech support to help them with the technological challenges of their jobs — from basic troubleshooting to help with passwords. For most companies, including FedEx, that help has traditionally come from a combination of in-house and outsourced support from independent vendors. What if, instead, companies began outsourcing IT management services to UofM’s students? The UofM could hire its own students to carry out the work and the students would get good-paying, part-time jobs that not only help them stay in school, but also prepare them for a professional career. In addition, net proceeds would go to support the University of Memphis Research Foundation (UMRF).
Making it happen
In 2017, the University of Memphis formed UMRF Ventures, Inc., and FedEx signed on to be the first customer. UMRF Ventures was an innovation for higher education, and like with any trailblazing initiative, it came with many challenges.
The UofM is a state organization subject to the rules and regulations of the state building commission. Establishing this pioneering entity required a significant amount of discussion at the state level to coordinate and allow the University to allocate space to establish the venture. State rules and regulations required deft negotiation in order to establish UMRF Ventures on campus and allow the UofM to leverage resources in support of the initiative. The enterprise was also a new endeavor for our corporate partners. Dr. M. David Rudd, University of Memphis President, provided a guiding hand and helped to coordinate state-level support for the initiative.
If this new entity was to mean business, it needed someone with experience to take the reins. Ventures hired its first CEO, Thomas G. Kadien, who spent 39 years as a senior executive with International Paper, another Memphis-based Fortune 500 company. He was also a long-standing member of the UofM Board of Visitors.
The final challenge was the pace of implementation. From initial conception, to the first call being answered by students was nine months. This pace was unprecedented for all organizations involved and reflected the commitment of the team that made it happen. In that time, University of Memphis Research Foundation, the FedEx Institute of Technology and FedEx Corporation came together to redefine what is possible in a public-private partnership. The establishment of UMRF Ventures meant that the University could leverage the student workforce to provide services as a third-party service provider to major corporations.
Today, UMRF Ventures, as a wholly-owned subsidiary of the University of Memphis Research Foundation, has contracts with several clients. From the start, the UofM recognized the importance of preventing student exploitation and adopted the key principle of paying students above minimum wage. As such, the bulk of its revenues are being used for student wages, from $15-$30 an hour, to ensure a living wage. Profits are returned to the University of Memphis Research Foundation in the form of dividends, which are then used to fund vital research efforts and professorships. In addition, UMRF Ventures pays rent and fees to the UofM, generating new revenues that support other University initiatives. The establishment of UMRF Ventures has resulted in positive economic development in the University District. No significant alteration of existing programs was required to bring UMRF Ventures to life; no funding from state sources, grants or other programs was required to start or sustain the initiative.
This is a model for the future of public-private partnerships for student success on university campuses. UMRF Ventures changes the conversation about what a university can do to help reduce student debt. Over the longer term, UMRF Ventures is expected to reduce student debt at the UofM by $15-$20 million annually.
For more info on UMRF Ventures including press, visit: umrfventures.com