An entrepreneur’s lesson on dreams

Mercy Ships founder Don Stephens speaks during Entrepreneurship Day festivities Wednesday at Colorado Mesa University. Stephens, who grew up in Olathe and attended the university when it was Mesa College, talked about the quest for investors in his humanitarian mission, which has provided $1 billion worth of medical services to 20 million people.



How does a ranch hand from Olathe become International Humanitarian of the Year? It starts with the answer to three questions.

Why were you born?

Where is there pain in your life?

What are you doing about it?

Tough questions, especially when Mother Teresa is the person who wants answers.

Don Stephens told a packed house at Colorado Mesa University on Wednesday that his life took on focus after Teresa of Calcutta touched his heart.

Stephens told the nun about his autistic son, who is unable to care for himself, but nevertheless manages to communicate using four simple gestures. The pain he experiences from the suffering of his son sparked a vision.

“I had a dream of launching a hospital ship for Africa,” Stephens said.

“I believe in your dream,” Teresa told him.

And here, perhaps, is the nexus between Stephens and the hundreds of for-profit business owners and entrepreneurs who heard him during Entrepreneur Day festivities at the college. 

Stephenson persevered. He arranged financing for the first Mercy Ship despite Italian bankers who wanted to know how a man without any maritime or medical background could possibly realize such a vision.

A loan of $1 million was eventually arranged through a Swiss bank thanks to a little help from a member of the bank’s board of directors, who put in a good word for the novice humanitarian.

“That’s a lot of money, but a lot more money 35 years ago,” he said.

The banker apparently liked, and ultimately trusted, Stephens.

Integrity and earning trust are key to success in business, he said.

“Those three questions opened my mind,” Stephens said. “This is a basic, philosophical quandary for all of us, whether you’re in the banking industry, ranching or farming. What’s you’re purpose, down deep within you?”

Stephens answered that question for himself. He challenged his audience to do the same.

More than 35 years since meeting Teresa, he and his wife, Deyon, have provided $1 billion worth of medical services to 20 million people.

A children’s charity in London, Variety International, named Stephens, who attended CMU, International Humanitarian of the Year.

“Begin with your vision to look where you’re headed and where you’re going,” Stephens said. “That’s so important to me. Write your dream down. Get your business plan in order.”

Seek out the people who know you and trust you for help, he said, and “stay with it.”

Jon Labrum, named Entrepreneur of the Year following Stephens’ talk, emphasized many of the same points as he thanked the Grand Junction Area Chamber of Commerce for the recognition.

Owner of two restaurants, an aviation maintenance company, and most recently, Spin City, Labrum told the crowd to never give up on their dreams and advised the youngest there to seek out internships as a good way to get started in business.

Marshall Anderson and Ryan Bengford, CMU students who won first place and $750 in the Entrepreneur Day Elevator Pitch competition, agreed their takeaways from the day were Mother Teresa’s three questions.

“If you don’t take those questions head on, then your whole life is going to be evading something deeper,” Anderson said.

Bengford argued the product they pitched to win the elevator competition — a type of robotic legs for the 20 million or so Americans currently unable to walk — was well-suited for the day.

“His dreams, his visions, we’ve got to do the same thing — speak about our vision to the group we’re working with,” Bengford said.

Stephens managed to impress more than just students. Professors and policymakers were inspired as well.

“Entrepreneurship is the lifeblood of the economy,” said Timothy Hatten, CMU professor of marketing and entrepreneurship. “It’s where everything starts.”

“I think the creative spirit of human beings translates into all sorts of jobs. It’s an expression all of us have and entrepreneurship taps into that creative value that human beings have,” Colorado Mesa University Board of Trustees Chairman Dan Robinson said.


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