Ken Walsleben’s career came full circle when he joined the faculty at his alma mater. He graduated from Syracuse in 1983 with a degree in economics and returned to teach in the Entrepreneurship and Emerging Enterprises Department at the Whitman School in 2009 as an adjunct professor. In 2014, he became a full-time professor of entrepreneurial practice. Coming “home” has been a decision he’s relished. “I love every minute of it. I am doing something I really want to do at a time I really want to do it. I wake up with a hop in my step every morning.”
Walsleben’s journey in business began while he was a student at SU. He ran the student employment division for the university’s food service program. At that time, the student program was a semi-autonomous, 1,200 employee, multi-million dollar employment operation.
After graduation, Walsleben secured a position with a commercial bank as a management trainee. He found he had a knack for finance. After three years with the bank, he took a finance position at an equipment leasing company. There, at the tender age of 25, he found himself responsible for financing more than $1 billion a year in equipment leases. “It provided a wonderful opportunity to stretch myself,” he says. It also gave Walsleben great experience that he would later put to use in an executive position with another equipment leasing firm.
In 1991 at the age of 30, Walsleben pursued the opportunity to start his own equipment leasing company. He learned so much from this venture—largely because it failed. “I came to realize what failure was and, with it, learned many lessons. I had a unique set of financial skills, but I lacked marketing and sales; all these parts must play together,” he explains.
In 1994, with a deeper understanding of entrepreneurship, Walsleben started a new venture—an invoice factoring business, which is a non-traditional form of finance for small/mid-sized financial firms. This time, his venture was a success. Within 22 years, the company was generating over $50 million annually. “Starting my own business was never part of my grand plan, as there were no entrepreneurs in my family while I was growing up,” he adds. “But I did it, and I’m really proud of that accomplishment.”
Walsleben’s experience with his factoring business opened many doors to unique opportunities. One such instance was a chance to work with the United States Treasury Department on the Patriot Act following 9/11. He helped strike a balance between what the government wanted to impose and what the financial factoring sector feared would hurt the industry.
Additionally, Walsleben had a hand in shaping the implementation of the JOBS Act, a federal law that changed the dynamic of how a company could sell stock to the public Walsleben explains, “Going public used to be an old boys’ club where you had to be able to pay to play, but the Internet changed the game and allowed small companies to go public. The Securities and Exchange Commission needed a new set of rules, and I was asked to help.” Originally, Walsleben was asked to testify, but this led to a bigger role of counseling the Small Business Committee in the House of Representatives.
In addition to running his factoring business and participating in unique opportunities, Walsleben guest lectured and judged senior Capstone projects at the Whitman School. He really enjoyed these opportunities to interact with students and impart his knowledge. “I realized I had something to say, and my experiences could benefit the next generation of students,” says Walsleben. That realization led him to become an adjunct and eventually a full-time professor of practice at Whitman.
Walsleben teaches two senior Capstone sections as well as Introduction to Entrepreneurship and Entrepreneurial Turnarounds, a course he created to teach students that entrepreneurs do not always start companies from scratch but often take existing businesses and make them successful. All of these classes align with experiences he has had in the business world.
Despite the love he has for teaching, Walsleben admits he faced challenges in his transition from entrepreneur to professor. “As a business owner, I set my own hours, but a good professor works 60 to 70 hours a week. I must be fully immersed, but I gladly do it, because I find being a professor really rewarding,” he shares. In addition to the new schedule, Walsleben found that going from business ownership to teaching about owning a business wasn’t seamless. “I had to learn a new craft. The skills needed to be a good professor are not ones you’re necessarily born with, and you must constantly figure out how to better understand the way your students learn best.”
No matter the challenges of teaching, they pale in comparison to the benefits for Walsleben. He loves being able to make a difference for students and see them come out of their shell to explore business creativity. “Seeing the success of students and knowing they are better for the time they have spent here is the best part of the job,” Walsleben adds. “My wife and I never had children, but I feel like I have 130 each semester, and it is extraordinary witnessing them succeed.”
Walsleben is proud both of his entrepreneurial success and his time as a professor at Whitman—highlights of which include coaching the winning Capstone team and being asked by Whitman Scholars to join them for their recognition dinner before commencement.
Walsleben is happy to teach and give back to the university that educated him. “I pinch myself sometimes that I’m here and get to work with the amazing students, staff and faculty,” he shares. “I feel so fortunate to be able to play in the sandbox with my colleagues and know my contributions are truly valued. That is good for the soul.”
Praise for Professor Walsleben from a Former Student:
“The impact Professor Ken has had both on my academic and personal growth is immeasurable. Ken does not just view those taking his lectures as students; rather he sees them as part of his family. His commitment, dedication and thoughtfulness are extraordinary. Ken readily makes himself available to students—he is at his students’ disposal whenever possible. He goes so far out of his way to accommodate students and make them feel welcomed and valued.
When you meet with Ken, he doesn’t just help you with understanding the course material. The conversation often turns into how you would personally apply those materials to what you do in your everyday life. Luckily for all students, it often ends with discussing personal life goals and admirations and becomes a great story time during which he learns more about you as a person and you learn more about his success outside of teaching.
From an academic standpoint, his teaching methods and skills are, bar none, the best I have personally encountered. He always seems to find the perfect mix of teaching the material (whether it be through PowerPoint or video) and teaching from his life experiences and those of other entrepreneurs. He relates his personal achievements and failures to what you are learning.
Professor Ken Walsleben is not just an entrepreneurship teacher; he is a mentor of all facets of life and every great opportunity it has to offer.”
-Andrew Abrams ‘16
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