Academics and Research

Denver entrepreneur JB Holston named new dean of DU engineering school

Noted entrepreneur and scale-up CEO JB Holston will assume the helm of the University’s Daniel Felix Ritchie School of Engineering and Computer Science on July 1.

Noted entrepreneur and scale-up CEO JB Holston will assume the helm of the University’s Daniel Felix Ritchie School of Engineering and Computer Science on July 1.

University of Denver Chancellor Rebecca Chopp announced Tuesday that noted entrepreneur and scale-up CEO JB Holston will assume the helm of the University’s Daniel Felix Ritchie School of Engineering and Computer Science on July 1.

Holston brings more than 25 years as a senior executive at Fortune 500 companies, as a venture capital-backed CEO, and as a startup entrepreneur of six highly successful enterprises to his new role as dean of the Ritchie School. Holston’s appointment is expected to propel the school in a new direction that emphasizes innovation and collaboration with key players in the region’s ideas economy.

“JB has a global reputation with an intentional focus in Denver and Colorado,” Chopp said. “He will put DU, and through it, the entire Front Range region at the cutting edge of innovation, knowledge and teaching. His leadership, experience and connections will help to make the Ritchie School of Engineering and Computer Science an intellectual and economic driver for our growing region.”

Holston was most recently founding executive director of the Blackstone Entrepreneurs Network, an organization launched in 2014 at the behest of Colorado Sen. Michael Bennet and with the support of Gov. John Hickenlooper and the Blackstone Group. The network was created to gather Colorado’s best serial entrepreneurs around the mission of identifying, promoting, connecting and assisting large-scale, fast-growing firms in critical advanced industries in the state. Since its launch, the network has added more than 220 advisors and adopted 47 of Colorado’s highest-potential firms.

Holston’s appointment is part of a major investment by DU to expand research and innovation in engineering and technology and to connect the University to leading technology companies and cutting-edge entrepreneurs. Thanks to a foundational gift from Chancellor Emeritus Dan Ritchie, the University is now building a 110,000-square-foot facility that will vastly expand research and instructional spaces, flexible classrooms, and interdisciplinary centers and institutes.

Gregg Kvistad, provost and executive vice chancellor, heralded Holston’s appointment as a plus for students and the school’s research enterprise.

“JB’s broad and deep expertise both in the public and private sector, as well as his entrepreneurial connections and insights, reflect a strategic vision for the Ritchie School of Engineering and Computer Science,” Kvistad said. “The University is making significant investments in the school, and JB will lead a transformation toward increased collaboration with industry and help us to educate and train technology entrepreneurs. With JB at the helm, the school will focus on increased experiential learning opportunities for our students and encourage research that fuels entrepreneurship.”

Holston holds a BA and MBA from Stanford University and was the recipient of the 2014 Colorado Technology Association’s Lifetime Achievement Award. Before his work at Blackstone, he held senior executive positions at GE and NBC. He also was founding CEO of NewGators (now Sitrion), a $33 million venture-capital-funded enterprise in social software.

Holston recently sat down with the University of Denver Magazine to talk about the Ritchie School’s next chapter. The conversation has been edited for brevity and clarity.


DU Magazine: Your career history suggests that you’re open to adventure. What about this opportunity at the Ritchie School particularly appeals to you?

JB Holston: I love to build. There are three things about this opportunity in particular that are compelling to me — the first is Chancellor Chopp. Meeting her was exhilarating, and sharing some of the possibilities with her was really exciting. She’s a change agent at a critical point in time for DU, in an environment which demands and rewards agility.

Secondly, I think DU is at the geographic vortex of transformative next-generation creativity. I’m a total Colorado homer, but if you look at all the trends going on in Colorado around innovation — particularly around technology-related fields, but really in any category, as all industries are being disrupted by technology — it’s an incredibly exciting time. I think we have the best economic conditions I’ve seen in Colorado in the 20-plus years I’ve been here. The fact that we’ve got this platform — this platform that is the University — right in the geographic center of all of this awesomeness is really exciting to me.

The third exciting aspect is that engineering and computer science are only going to become more fundamental to everything everyone does and has to learn. So the opportunity to have the Ritchie School become that much more foundational for a great liberal arts university, and really show the way, really demonstrate what that means in the future, is also very compelling to me. I think every liberal arts student should have the right kind of exposure to design thinking, big data and enough computer science to not be fooled. Let’s be the vanguard.


DU Magazine: And all this innovation and entrepreneurial energy comes not so long after the Great Recession.

Holston: We in Colorado didn’t sink quite as low [as the rest of the country] — partly because the economy is a lot more diverse — but we bounced back more quickly and completely, and I think that points to so many great attributes about Colorado, to the character of the place. Those are the reasons why we’re getting an in-migration of so many credentialed millennials to the Denver area — more than any other region of the country by number. Not by percentage, but by number. Denver went from the 22nd largest city a year ago to the 21st largest city this year. I believe the culture of our place has a great deal to do with this; our collaborative, risk-taking, pay-it-forward and share-to-gain ethos. It’s just the perfect time for innovation.


DU Magazine: In your mind’s eye, what will the Ritchie School look and feel like in five years?

Holston: A lot of what I’m going to try to do early on is figure out the answer to that question. I’m going to take others in the school with me for a listening tour. What are the best-in-class places that we can learn from? We’re going to be thoughtful about what that means. There are places that are doing engineering and computer science in a liberal-arts context really well, and we want to learn from them.

Having said that, I do have some definite objectives. There is a tremendous opportunity to integrate the school into the community much more directly. There are two constituencies in particular: one is the innovation and entrepreneurial community; the other is the civic community. There is so much happening along both of those vectors that relates directly to the faculty in the school, the students and the passions of both of them — in respect to their research interests, in respect to their spirit of adventure, and also in respect to their civic-mindedness.

I’m really passionate about driving those connections, so expect to see the school a much more integral part of the community — again, not just the industrial community, but the civic community.

The other thing: I think that technology — specifically computer science and certain kinds of engineering — is part and parcel of a liberal arts education, and I think that’s only going to become more true. Everything and anything I can do to lead the way, to show how that can work in the DU context, I’m very, very passionate about.

Having the school become a fundamentally vibrant part of the community — both the business community and the entrepreneurial community, as well as the civic community — and having it also become a high-impact, necessary part of students’ journey, whether they’re undergraduate or graduate students, I think that’s a great opportunity.

A report came out last week that indicated that half of all computer science majors in five years will be women – up from 10 percent today. The New York Times ran an editorial this weekend about “what to learn in college to stay one step ahead of computers.” Creativity is broadly understood to be a function of diversity. These are all wonderful opportunities for the Ritchie School.


DU Magazine: In leading the Ritchie School, how will you draw on your track record as an entrepreneur?

Holston: There are two answers to that. The easier one is — and I told this to the faculty when I met them — there are probably 10 start-ups or financial entities in town that would love to have a close relationship with every one of the faculty members in that school. Today.

So finding a way to make those connections in ways that are useful to the faculty is something that I want to do right away. I’m in the position of knowing a lot about a whole ton of different companies, so making those connections is something that I think I’m in a unique position to do.

This is a way to give everyone in the school — and not just the faculty; this pertains to students as well — optionality in their careers and their lives, whether it’s funding for research, company formation or an opportunity to do a stint, on the side or over time, with one of these [entrepreneurial or civic] enterprises. The more that we can tee these sorts of things up, the more options students and faculty members will have in their lives going forward. And that’s a good thing.

What I’m going to be very thoughtful about are the multiple constituencies in the academic setting. I am a change agent, and I’m a builder, and I’m a very fast-driving kind of person, but it’s really important that we ensure that, wherever we’re headed, we have all the interests of all the constituencies [in mind]. This is really critical. When people think of entrepreneurs and think of deans, they usually don’t put those words in the same sentence. So I want to make sure that people don’t think, in terms of my context, that I’m going to come in and charge far ahead of where anyone would ever care to go. That doesn’t make sense in any context, but it definitely doesn’t make sense in the context of a university.


DU Magazine: How do you expect the student experience to evolve at the Ritchie School under your leadership?

Holston: I’m hopeful that we’re going to see students have a much more connected experience across multiple constituencies in the future. And when I say multiple constituencies, I mean all the schools on the campus; and not just [constituencies] on campus but outside of campus; and not just connections with entrepreneurial entities and technology organizations but also with civic organizations — because that’s fundamental to DU’s vision. Social entrepreneurship and social good are part of the vocabulary here, so from my perspective, the more that we are able to provide paths for students to learn outside the traditional confines of the school, the better.

That may mean being part of some sort of Ritchie School/business school endeavor or Ritchie School/education school endeavor or Ritchie School/fill-in-the-blank endeavor — and that endeavor may have a tie to the city, maybe to some specific neighborhoods that could really use the capabilities that students have to be positive change agents. We just have a tremendous opportunity to have students network much more broadly and much more quickly with a lot of really powerful constituencies in ways that are directly educational and that are direct accelerators to their careers and their passions.


DU Magazine: What does the school’s emerging focus mean for Colorado and its already very exciting entrepreneurial scene?

Holston: There is so much excitement in Denver right now, it’s just insane. Let’s tap into that excitement. There’s a lot of positive energy that can help DU. But the flip side is equally true. DU has so many wonderful assets that can be integrated directly into some of the great initiatives happening in Denver. There are so many great things going on that can provide tremendous meaning to the folks who participate in them, and I think we have an opportunity to [foster] that.

Beyond that, there’s no pod of entrepreneurialism within the city, or even the state, that isn’t interested in having the opportunity to tap into the expertise and passion and interest of the people in the school, whether students or faculty. That sounds unrealistic if you live within the confines of DU, but I spend my life in that world, and I hear it all the time.

One of the things we learned through the Blackstone initiative was that every successful entrepreneur and company in Colorado is desperate for closer connections to Colorado institutions of higher education — particularly around technology and computer science. I can give you a hundred names of CEOs who are saying, “How can I have a connection with the Ritchie School? Because our company needs to innovate. Because we want more talent, more diverse talent, local talent. And we want to know what those researchers are doing. How can I have that connection?”

All we have to do is open up the doors, and there will be a wonderfully delightful deluge of interest.

And one of the nice things about that is you can’t predict what will happen. Will companies spin out faster from DU? Sure. Will people do really cool things with civic initiatives that nobody thought about before? Absolutely. Will people get wired into opportunities outside campus — where they become advisors, directors, consultants, whatever — a lot more quickly? Totally. Can more research get funded from nontraditional sources like industry? Definitely. Can we come up with some really cool innovations between schools within DU that can lead to innovations spinning out of DU more rapidly? Certainly.

I think there’s a plethora of really fascinating opportunities that are going to bubble up really, really quickly. One of the advantages we have is the [forthcoming] building itself, because it is going to give us a platform for convening.

When that building is completed, I’ve told everyone, “Hey, expect noise.” It will be cacophonous — and wonderful.



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