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$1M Wilson Gift Kick-Starts Entrepreneurship Focus at Lyon College

3 min read

A million-dollar donation on behalf of the deep-rooted Wilson family of Arkansas will create an endowed professorship and lay the foundation of an institute focused on free enterprise and entrepreneurship at Lyon College in Batesville.

Little Rock attorney Perry Wilson, chairman of the liberal arts college’s board of trustees, made the commitment on behalf of his family. Wilson is the great-great grandson of R.E. Lee Wilson, who in 1885 started Lee Wilson & Co., which operated a huge farm, a railroad company and other businesses in his namesake city in Mississippi County. The business sold in 2011 for $150 million.

Wilson’s donation will create the endowed Michael E. Wilson Professorship of Business, Management and Social Entrepreneurship, named after Perry Wilson’s father, Michael Evans Wilson, who served on Lyon College’s board for many years. Michael Wilson died in 2008.

It comes as the college makes plans for its Institute for Free Enterprise and Entrepreneurship, which will be named at a later date upon receipt of additional funding. Lyon intends to hire a full-time program director and establish “a comprehensive business incubator” to combine academics with applied entrepreneurship. It would also include a center for economic analysis and data for northeast Arkansas.

“This is a way to accentuate and bolster the rigorous liberal arts education from Lyon with what students will experience in the real world,” Perry Wilson in a news release. 

“If we don’t have an educated population in the state of Arkansas, the state will fail,” he continued. “[With this institute] if we give students a basis upon which to go out and create something new, and they stay in Arkansas, that can only serve to better economic development for the state.”

The institute would be modeled after others, including the institute at Babson College in Wellesley, Massachusetts. Lyon officials said no other Arkansas colleges have an institute like the one Lyon is planning.

“Our business faculty have been planning the changes to the curriculum for some time, and the Wilson family’s gift will support the implementation of the business division’s new focus on entrepreneurship,” Provost Melissa Taverner said.

The changes will begin this year with a reorganization of Lyon’s business division, which will emphasize business and entrepreneurship in support of the institute. Lyon will also add business faculty positions, a Six Sigma certification program and minors in entrepreneurship and leadership; social entrepreneurship and economic development; and health economics.

In 2014, Lyon received a $1 million donation from the R.E. Lee Wilson Trust Foundation to help fund the construction of two new residence halls. In 2018, Wilson announced a $1 million donation to endow a faculty chair in agricultural business at Arkansas State University in Jonesboro.

Wilson, a 2011 Arkansas Business “40 Under 40” honoree, is a member at the Barber Law Firm PLLC of Little Rock specializing in business and corporate law; mergers and acquisitions; family businesses and succession planning; and construction law. He’s a former chair of the Economics Arkansas board.

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