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From the Blue Skies to Blue Sky Thinking

A major gift from the John F. Scarpa Foundation furthers Villanova’s goal of promoting entrepreneurial thinking University-wide

Long-time benefactor John F. Scarpa traces his decades-long connection with Villanova University and the Villanova University Charles Widger School of Law to a chance encounter on a plane in the 1970s. “I was in Washington, D.C., on business and had to get to Philadelphia,” he recalls. “I’m sitting in the back and see a priest come on board, and he happens to sit next to me.”

His ecclesiastical seatmate was the Rev. George F. Riley, OSA, PhD. Before his retirement in 2016, Father Riley had served Villanova for more than five decades in various positions, including vice president for University Relations and special assistant to the President for Alumni and External Relations. Scarpa, a successful entrepreneur in the cable television industry who would go on to become an innovator in cellular communication, was well-versed in making the most of every conversation.

His chat with the Augustinian friar was no different. Although Scarpa had no prior affiliation with the University, he walked away with a newfound admiration for Villanova after that 30-minute flight. As often happens in business, that connection led to others—and Scarpa came to know many other leaders at the University over the years and joined with them to further its mission, particularly in advancing innovation and entrepreneurship in legal education.

As his relationship with Villanova University deepened, his admiration developed into an investment—one that recently grew by $15 million to now total more than $21 million. In recognition of Scarpa’s long-term generosity, the Law School building has been named John F. Scarpa Hall.

University leaders regard his contributions as both an engine for innovation and a commitment to a shared vision. “Over many years, John has shown a steadfast commitment to Villanova, and particularly to cultivating the entrepreneurship mindset in the study of law and other disciplines across our campus,” says University President the Rev. Peter M. Donohue, OSA, PhD, ’75 CLAS. “This transformational gift will encourage the next generation of Villanova entrepreneurs by expanding their opportunities in the Law School and across the entire University.”

University-Wide Collaboration

Scarpa’s most recent contribution through the John F. Scarpa Foundation in late 2020 has the key goal of boosting cross-disciplinary learning and programming that sparks innovation across Villanova’s six colleges. The gift provides $15 million to further advance the Law School’s leadership in entrepreneurship and law, as well as strengthen entrepreneurial expertise, innovative thinking and collaboration University-wide.

“It’s easy for any university to be a collection of individual schools and colleges that don’t collaborate. But it is possible to work together to develop and advance entrepreneurial ideas,” says Mark C. Alexander, JD, the Arthur J. Kania Dean and professor of Law at the Charles Widger School of Law. “The College of Engineering has developed a low-cost ventilator in response to COVID-19. Now, imagine that they did not have financial support for that. How do you get seed funding for patenting? How do you protect investments? These are legal questions that Law students can help with.”

A core element of Scarpa’s gift is the creation of a faculty position in the Law School dedicated to entrepreneurship. The John F. Scarpa Endowed Professor in Entrepreneurship will provide expertise in entrepreneurship and innovation and related aspects of the law, engage in scholarship, teach courses, organize resources such as speakers and seminars and advise students in competitions, among other roles. The professorship will provide the go-to person for interdisciplinary conversations and programming University-wide.

The gift will also support the creation of an incubator fund to launch a new annual venture competition in conjunction with the University’s Innovation, Creativity and Entrepreneurship (ICE) Institute in which students throughout Villanova can compete for seed funding that could come from the University or even real-world investors. 

“The idea is to get budding entrepreneurs in front of more seasoned entrepreneurs,” Dean Alexander says. “It’s like Shark Tank [the entrepreneurship-themed ABC reality television program]. But in the context of a university, it’s an opportunity to learn. A limited number of students will win, but all of them will get feedback and support, which in itself teaches you to be a better student and entrepreneur.”

Other resource expansions that the gift will make possible include bringing in multidisciplinary speakers on entrepreneurial topics, providing opportunities for more students to participate in the Clinic for Law and Entrepreneurship, and offering scholarships for students who show a commitment to entrepreneurship and innovation.

“We see our relationship as a joint venture or partnership, and John’s engagement shows great confidence in where we’re going as a Law School and University,” Dean Alexander says. “We’re building our programs and expanding what we already do.”

To think about clients who are entrepreneurs and understand their concerns allows you to advise them better on legal matters because you comprehend their underlying business. That's critical.

Mary Ann Robinson '79 JD, professor of Law

Partners in Innovation

Scarpa’s funding in part helps support two key objectives at the core of the John F. Scarpa Center for Entrepreneurship and Law, according to Andrew Lund, JD, director of the center and professor of Law.

One is encouraging lawyers to be more entrepreneurial. Scarpa has said that if the Law School is where law meets business, the center is where law meets innovation. “The idea that you’re an entrepreneur as an attorney—that’s not something we were clued into when I was in law school,” Professor Lund says.

“A clear application is if you hang a shingle and start a small law firm, you need to be an entrepreneur and innovator who understands how to run a business and get clients. And if you work for a firm, whether nonprofit or for-profit, it’s valuable to understand how law is both a profession and a business, how what you’ve learned converts to capital, what the pressures are and how the operation is run.”

The second major objective relates to better serving clients. “To think about clients who are entrepreneurs and understand their concerns allows you to advise them better on legal matters because you comprehend their underlying business,” says Mary Ann Robinson ’79 JD, professor of Law. “That’s critical.”

That’s why Villanova Law, under the auspices of the Scarpa Center, worked with industry experts and leading law firms to design two innovative learning modules that bring Villanova’s where law meets business philosophy to life. Held at the start of the spring semester, these week-long, intensive Business Modules introduce students to key concepts, including financial statements, valuation and the economics of law firms, that are fundamental to success in the legal profession but traditionally are not taught in law schools.

“They are tough, practical courses that are directly related to the entrepreneurial emphasis that Mr. Scarpa has helped us focus on,” Professor Robinson says. “Students don’t focus on anything else during that week, and it’s remarkable to see what they absorb.”

Professor Robinson has directed the Joseph Del Raso Business and Financial Literacy for Lawyers module for first-year law students since 2015. Through the module, students gain exposure to subjects such as Accounting and Finance from a professor in the Villanova School of Business. They work in small groups and put newly learned business and financial concepts into practice. Under the guidance of volunteer practitioners, they work through real-life legal scenarios—such as the negotiation of the sale and purchase of a business.

Such hands-on experiences can powerfully influence students. “Hearing about the Scarpa Center and seeing that Villanova had a dedicated space for entrepreneurship and law was one of the reasons I came to Villanova,” says John Vernon ’19 JD, who is now an associate at Paladin Capital Group, a venture capital firm in Washington, D.C. “I sought out practical experiences.”

In addition to the Business and Financial Literacy module, Vernon participated in the Law School’s Clinic for Law and Entrepreneurship, which allows student attorneys under faculty guidance to advise and assist actual clients on a range of legal matters, such as structuring entities, negotiating contracts, applying for tax-exempt status and complying with regulations. Other opportunities included venture capital competitions in which Vernon helped provide counsel in a simulated deal and, in his first year, went to national finals in California. He also participated in programs through the ICE Institute, which fosters entrepreneurial thinking throughout the University.

“All of these opportunities were excellent,” Vernon says. “Great synergy was already happening between the Law and Business schools, as well as the ICE Institute.”

Ultimately, sparking more innovation will broaden the impact that Villanova students across the University have as citizens of the world. Professor Lund has already seen how Law students benefit from Scarpa’s investments.

“Anecdotally, we’ve asked law firms that hire our students what they think, and partners have said our students really understand business in addition to law and behave in ways that are beyond what they see in students from other schools,” Professor Lund says. “That’s an example of how John Scarpa’s commitment has led to positive outcomes for our students.” ◼︎

Generous Visionary

John F. Scarpa believes education has the capacity to develop and propel new ideas that lead to expanded possibilities. “A lot of students end up in different careers than those they studied for,” he says. His own granddaughter, Jessica Lantz ’19 CLAS, majored in psychology at Villanova, but he says her experience at a fashion retailer in suburban Philadelphia helped steer her in a new direction. She now has a marketing position at Forbes magazine.

“I don’t know that any school can teach passion, which I think you either have or don’t,” Scarpa says. “But the innovation that goes with passion is something we can bring out of students through thinking and programs, whether it pertains to law, business, engineering, science, nursing, the arts or whatever it may be.”

John F. Scarpa in a blue suit and tie standing in front of the  John F. Scarpa Center for Entrepreneurship and Law at Villanova University

In his own career, Scarpa’s mix of passion and innovation led him to be an entrepreneur in the cable television business. In the late 1970s, he was instrumental in establishing the New Jersey and Northeast Cable TV Associations. In the 1980s, he founded and served as president and chief operating officer of American Cellular Network Corporation, which became the first publicly traded cellular telephone company in the United States. He went on to co-found Unitel Wireless Communications Systems, where he helped build and manage cellular telephone systems throughout the US. 

“I was blessed with a vision of things I wanted to do in telecommunications,” Scarpa says. “The cable and cellular telephone industries captured my brain and gave me the opportunity to pursue everything necessary to create those startup businesses.”

He believes exposing students to the idea of entrepreneurship is an important first step in helping them to figure out what their path looks like. That’s why he and his wife, Jana, gifted the Law School with $5 million in 2015 for the establishment of the John F. Scarpa Center for Law and Entrepreneurship. And their most recent $15 million contribution will broaden initiatives that have sparked innovation in the Law School to benefit students in every college.

“My vision is to create a program that will make students aware of what entrepreneurship is if they want to create a business and understand how business works,” Scarpa says.

That knowledge can provide fuel that powers ideas. “I’m a huge believer in people who have their own ideas and work to bring them to fruition,” Scarpa says. “If they can find a way to do that through Villanova’s entrepreneurship programs, we can bring a great deal of change to the lives of many students.”


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