Alum and Under Armour Founder Shares Wisdom at UMD Entrepreneurship Conference
Photo by Stephanie S. Cordle
The next time you see a group of kids selling cold drinks by the side of the road, Kevin Plank ’96 urges you to pull over.
“Take five minutes and stop and buy a cup of lemonade,” he said yesterday at the third annual EnTERPreneurship Conference hosted by the University of Maryland Alumni Association. “Help encourage them on their journey, too. It’s the greatest gift that we have.”
Plank, the founder, executive chairman and brand chief of sports apparel maker Under Armour, participated in a keynote chat with University President Darryll J. Pines at the event, where the 250-plus attendees connected with and learned from fellow Terp entrepreneurs at panel discussions, a networking lunch and a resource fair staffed by local organizations offering business and legal advice, financing options and mentorship.
EnTERPreneur awards were also presented to David C. Quattrone MBA ’05, co-founder and chief technology officer for Cvent, which provides meeting, event and hospitality technology; Lauren Foundos ’06, founder and CEO of Fortë, a streaming gym class service; and Pramod Raheja ’91 and Evandro Valente ’03, M.S. ’06, co-founders of unmanned aerial vehicle company Airgility.
Plank’s own journey from a Terp entrepreneur is the stuff of legends: As a Maryland football player, he developed T-shirts from sweat-wicking synthetic fabric that were cooler, drier and more comfortable for his teammates. Since launching Under Armour in 1996 out of his grandmother’s basement, he has grown the company into a multibillion-dollar powerhouse. Here’s some other wisdom he’s gleaned over the years:
Learn the systems
One of Plank’s best experiences at the University of Maryland was seeing how to interact “with a large system,” he said. That means understanding how you fit within a bureaucracy and structure and taking what you can from each opportunity there.
“There’s lessons in everything. It’s going to an orientation and not just sitting in the crowd, but it’s thinking about, ‘I’m going to stay behind and shake this person’s hand.’ It is those little things of making those connections.”
Match insight with passion
Plank despised how his cotton shirts felt during football practices and games. “We would go in at halftime and the team would spend five, 10 minutes pulling shoulder pads off, swapping out T-shirts just to get them dry and thinking, ‘This is crazy’ and ‘How come nobody has a better alternative?’” he said.
Plank found one with his innovative shirts, saying, “I was lucky to be able to have an insight that matched my passion, that I could then apply into a job—more importantly, a calling or a mission that allowed me to chase and build something.”
Adapt to change
The internet and e-commerce—let alone the creation of “influencers” who help mold consumer behavior through social media—has been a sea change since Under Armour’s beginning, Plank said.
“The way that we talk to the consumer is so different today,” he said. “There’s no such thing as a 60-second commercial, in general. It’s figuring out how we can do the snackable bites in seven seconds that will intrigue you on an Instagram story.”
“This is metabolism,” he said. “We all remain students.”
Connect with customers
Data and algorithms can have great predictive powers about what customers want, Plank said, and brands need to dictate “the tempo of what’s cool.” At the same time, however, lasting loyalty for a brand like his comes only from an inviting and inspiring image that can make a little kid more confident when exercising or trying out for a team.
“It’s our job to make sure there is a superpower,” he said. “That’s when we’ve really won. And it’s not just some marketing story that you are making up, but it really is affecting us.”
Despite the increase in complexity and demand at a large public company since the days of selling T-shirts out of the trunk of his car, Plank said that the temptation to romanticize the old days is a waste of time—“All I can do is think about living right now,” he said.
“Being present is the most important advice I can give anybody,” he said. “Wherever you are, be there. That’s great advice for a parent, that’s great advice for a boss. And build that person, build that organization that you always wanted.”
Find hundreds of Terp businesses in the Alumni Association’s new Terp Referral Exchange Business Directory.
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