Ron Schmeichel, a Canadian entrepreneur and financier, is lending his name to Western’s new entrepreneurship and innovation building, with a $10-million donation and a shared commitment with Western University to cultivating Canada’s future entrepreneurs.
“This space will help students from all academic disciplines come together around a common belief: when you invite ideas, enthusiasm and skills to come together you create and build innovation,” said Schmeichel, JD’95. “This is more than a building. This is a place where tomorrow’s entrepreneurs will cultivate their entrepreneurial spirit, whether they’re in engineering, music, journalism, law, medicine, science, business or the arts. We need to both encourage and back the entrepreneurial culture in Canada, and this new institute is going to play a big role in doing that,” said Schmeichel.
The 100,000-square-foot building is located at the heart of campus and will be named the Ronald D. Schmeichel Building for Entrepreneurship and Innovation.
When completed in the fall of 2023, Western’s first net-zero-energy building will be a gathering place that houses a state-of-the art, active learning classroom; a maker space equipped with 3D printers, metalworking, machinery and woodworking tools; and a digital lab.
It will also be home to Western’s signature entrepreneurship programs, including the Morrissette Institute for Entrepreneurship, Powered by Ivey, and its range of incubators, accelerator programs and networks.
Western will establish the Ronald D. Schmeichel Founders Awards, providing financial support and mentoring for some of Western’s most promising entrepreneurial students. In addition, a new biannual speaker series will be created that will feature high-profile entrepreneurs and alumni, presenting in person in the new space as well as virtually to a wide audience.
“Over the past 20 years I’ve had the distinct honour to speak to classes of Western students. Giving back in all forms matters greatly and making a sustained investment in the aspirations of a whole new generation of students is important to me,” Schmeichel said.
Western president Alan Shepard said the gift will help the university ramp up its strategic emphasis on innovation and commercialization across campus and across faculties.
“Ron often talks about ‘the art of the possible’ in boosting Canadian entrepreneurship, and education. His generosity will make it possible to strengthen that ecosystem here,” Shepard said. “Students, with a seed of an idea, will be able to find – from faculty, staff and other students – the kind of expertise that will allow their business or product concept to flourish into new commercial ventures.”
The entrepreneurship centre will be a hive of entrepreneurial teaching, learning and experiencing; and a centrepiece of Western’s goals for collaboration and making a difference in the world.
Schmeichel is the co-founder and chairman of JJR Private Capital, a private capital firm specializing in equity and credit investments to emerging and mid-market companies in Canada and the USA.
“Entrepreneurship comes in many forms,” Schmeichel noted. “I’m a financial entrepreneur and I have spent my career backing other entrepreneurs with capital, business support and mentorship.”
Schmeichel’s experience at Western was what started him on the road to entrepreneurship.
“What drew me to Western was its respected brand and strong presence in the business community. Once I visited the campus, I was hooked. I’ll never forget walking into the law school and having that deep sense of history and academia, from the paintings on the walls of judges, lawyers and professors to the extensive library and the hushed halls. I was scared out of my mind – but it was also magical.”
Schmeichel drew early inspiration from law professor Richard McLaren, who recognized that not everyone in the program would choose to practise law after graduation. He treated law studies as a foundation for business, politics and society.
“Rich would say, ‘It’s not about memorizing this case in front of you; it’s about your judgment – your judgment about people, about what’s important, about the business opportunity, about the essence not the noise of a legal case.’ He taught us that legal training would prepare us well for a business career or a political or administrative career. All the same principles apply,” Schmeichel recalled.
“He opened my mind to how I could apply what I was learning in school toward building my business and life aspirations and there is no better outcome of an education than that.”
Schmeichel also took as many courses at Ivey Business School as he could. From Jim Hatch (now professor emeritus), he learned to immerse himself in case studies in business and law.
He often would attend guest lectures from judges and business leaders who came to tell their stories to the motivated student audience at Ivey and Western Law.
The ‘virtuous cycle’
When he graduated, Schmeichel articled at a small Toronto law firm while at the same time borrowing money to create his first public company. It’s a statement to his entrepreneurial spirit that he started his first company, as an articling lawyer, within six months of graduating from Western.
In 2002, Schmeichel co-founded JJR Capital Corp. with fellow Western Law alumni, John Drake BA’68, LLB’71 and Jay Freeman, HBA’68, LLB’71.
In addition to donating to Western Law, he has returned to Western numerous times in the past 20 years to speak with law and business students about entrepreneurship and the art of making an effective deal.
“This opportunity to give to Western University reflects my passion for helping students and the love I have for Western. I’ve committed to contributing to Western ever since graduating in 1995,” noted Schmeichel.
“This building is going to help individuals and groups across campus come together – faculty, students, staff and alumni. These students are the future business and political leaders. That’s the virtuous cycle we’re looking for, with one positive action reinforcing the next one,” he said.
“I believe it’s very important for Western University, and for Canada, to foster the next generation of entrepreneurs. This country was built on entrepreneurship and innovation, from the farmer taking calculated risks every day, to the person building any business, whether that’s a factory, a restaurant or a biotech or technology platform. My investment in Western is aimed at encouraging students to work hard, innovate and, above all, to take smart risks in life.”
Schmeichel’s own winding path, from first-year law student to successful entrepreneur, has afforded him the ability to offer sound advice for incoming students: “Good character, hard work and having an open mind will be paramount to your success. When you see something that excites you, go for it. Sure, it might be scary but the opportunity to pursue something impactful and fulfilling is worth the fear. You will fail often and, trust me, that’s okay. Each step of the way you will learn, grow and become stronger, smarter and a better entrepreneur and person.”