Shondaland COO and Nextdoor Founder: Dallas Power Couple Tapped to Lead SMU Entrepreneur Hub at Cox School of Business

Global TV and tech innovators Megha and Nirav Tolia will helm SMU’s Spears Institute for Entrepreneurial Leadership. Launched in 2022 with the largest-ever gift by a non-alumnus in SMU's history, the institute is gearing up to leverage the "culture of free enterprise in North Texas."

A Dallas power couple with Hollywood and Silicon Valley ties has a new challenge in sight. Business pioneers Megha and Nirav Tolia have been named co-founding directors of the newly minted William S. Spears Institute for Entrepreneurial Leadership at SMU’s Cox School of Business.

The institute was launched in April 2022 by William S. Spears, founder and CEO of Cenergistic, backed by the largest-ever gift by a non-alumnus in SMU’s history.

The Tolias, who moved to the Dallas region from the West Coast in 2021 and live in the Park Cities, bring real-world experience leading companies to the entrepreneurial hub. 

Megha Tolia leads Shondaland, the television production company founded by renowned Hollywood showrunner Shonda Rhimes, the creative force behind hit shows like “Grey’s Anatomy,” “Scandal,” “Bridgerton,” and “Inventing Anna.”

Nirav Tolia is the founder and former CEO of Nextdoor, the world’s largest local social networking service. Tolia, who began his career as employee No. 84 at Yahoo!, is currently executive chairman of Hedosophia, a leading technology investment firm.

Fueling the “entrepreneurial mindset”

The Tolias’ new role was announced last week by university President R. Gerald Turner at an event hosted by the Spears Institute—a moderated conversation with Lorie K. Logan, president and CEO of the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas.

With their experience leading high-profile endeavors in entertainment and technology, the Tolias aim to tap into the “entrepreneurial mindset” to inspire SMU students.

Megha Tolia says it’s a mindset that “goes beyond the ‘what’ that you build. It’s so much about the ‘how’ and the ‘who’—and that is what will fuel the innovation of the future.”

The Tolias believe the Spears Institute is “absolutely essential because entrepreneurship is essential to our country.”

“It’s the lifeblood, the beating heart of free enterprise, which is what America is built on,” Nirav Tolia said.

Cenergistic CEO and Founder Spears says the opportunity to learn from innovative entrepreneurs is a key draw of the SMU institute’s program. “I cannot imagine two better people than Megha and Nirav Tolia to inspire excitement on the SMU campus and beyond, focus our students’ talents and demonstrate what it takes to succeed,” he said.

According to Spears, “entrepreneurship often starts with a spark, but the opportunity to learn from the experiences of others is key to reaching the finish line.”

William Spears, founder and CEO of Dallas-based sustainability solutions firm Cenergistic, gave SMU its largest donation from a non-alum in its more than century-long history in 2022. The gift helped establish the Institute for Entrepreneurial Leadership within the Cox School of Business, as well as the Spears Accelerator and other entrepreneur-supporting efforts.[Photo: SMU]

Building global businesses

Megha Tolia, who is president and COO of Shondaland, has spent the last 20 years building and operating mission-driven, consumer-centric, innovative brands.

She began her career as a brand manager for Neutrogena and spent eight years managing several businesses for SC Johnson, including Method, Ecover, Mrs. Meyer’s and Babyganics, SMU said.

Nirav Tolia spent the last 24 years creating and leading early-stage, pioneering consumer internet companies. After beginning his career at Yahoo!, he founded and served as CEO for three successive companies: Epinions, Fanbase, and Nextdoor. 

Under his leadership, Nextdoor grew into the world’s largest local social network and was adopted by over 220,000 neighborhoods in 11 countries around the world, including 90% of American neighborhoods.

“Paying it forward”

The power couple moved to North Texas from Silicon Valley following a stint in Italy and after selling their $25 million Bay Area mansion. SMU said the Tolias first got to know Spears as neighbors when they moved here two years ago.

Spears is “the quintessential entrepreneur,” the couple said, “paying it forward” to build future leaders through the Spears Institute.

“We have a moment in time here in the metroplex where all of this great creativity, innovation, excitement and optimism is coming together. And so there is no better time to create a centralized place where students can learn how to be great entrepreneurs,” Nirav Tolia said in a statement.

“We know the Spears Institute will catapult future generations. We are excited about our roles as co-founding directors of this institute because we bring very different experiences to the table,” Megha Tolia added.

Nirav Tolia will be a keynote speaker Tuesday at Dallas Startup Week 2023, at the UNT Frisco campus in HALL Park.

SMU Spears Institute set for completion in summer 2024

SMU said the institute is designed to encourage business creation, leadership development, and economic growth, strengthening areas that are critical to the future of the Dallas business economy.

“Dr. Spears announced his gift in the spring of 2022 just as the University was preparing to break ground on the renovation and expansion of the Cox School,” Matthew B. Myers, dean of the Cox School of Business, said in a statement. “With the expansion project on track for completion next summer, we are excited that the Spears Institute is already gearing up. The announcement of the Tolias as co-founding directors is emblematic of the caliber of high-profile leadership the Spears Institute will bring to campus and the Dallas community.”

The university said the Spears Institute will enhance the business ventures of SMU students and faculty and the wider region, support the academic and professional pursuits of students and faculty, and bring speakers to share expertise of interest to the campus and business community by leveraging the culture of free enterprise in North Texas.

Under the Tolias’ leadership, the institute will create a program consisting of Spears undergraduate scholars, Spears graduate fellows, distinguished visiting entrepreneurs and distinguished visiting faculty.

According to SMU, the program will include:

The Spears Distinguished Speaker Series—global entrepreneurial leaders invited to campus for regular presentations.

Spears Mentors—individual entrepreneurs who agree to mentor one or more undergraduate or graduate students per semester.

Academic content—credit-bearing courses on entrepreneurial leadership each semester taught by a distinguished visiting entrepreneur or Endowed Chair in Entrepreneurial Leadership.

The Spears Internship Program—opportunities for Spears scholars and fellows to intern with entrepreneurs in Dallas; Washington, D.C.; California and international settings.

Spears Entrepreneurial Certification—development of short courses on entrepreneurial leadership leading to receipt of a branded Spears Certificate.

SMU said that the gift that created the Spears Institute for Entrepreneurial Leadership was a signature moment for SMU Ignited: Boldly Shaping Tomorrow, the university’s $1.5 billion campaign for impact.

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