For two decades, regional visionaries, innovators, problem solvers and risk takers have been celebrated center-stage at the annual Spirit of the Entrepreneur Awards black-tie gala held by the Inland Empire Center for Entrepreneurship (IECE) at Cal State San Bernardino.

This year’s 20th anniversary event, held from 5-9 p.m. on Nov. 17 at the Riverside Convention Center, promises to surpass previous galas in honoring the accomplishments and resilience of local entrepreneurs who have strived to build businesses into major contributors to the Inland Empire’s economy.

To mark the occasion, special Legacy Awards will be given to two outstanding previous Spirit of the Entrepreneur Award recipients. Visit the Legacy Awards finalists website here.

For ticket information, learn more at Spirit of the Entrepreneur tickets.

The Spirit of the Entrepreneur program was founded in 2003 by IECE director Mike Stull, a CSUSB professor of entrepreneurship, and has honored more than 200 entrepreneurs.

Stull, who also serves as the director of the CSUSB School of Entrepreneurship, came up with the idea for the awards shortly after becoming the center’s director, when he discovered students in the CSUSB entrepreneurship program couldn’t name any local entrepreneurial role models.

“Similarly, in my many conversations with leaders in the community, none could cite successful entrepreneurs that were key drivers to the local economy,” Stull said. “To me, this represented a significant gap — we have many successful entrepreneurs in the region, and our students and community leaders needed to know who they were.

“Thus, I endeavored to bring an event to life that would celebrate and honor local entrepreneurs in a format that would be inspiring, fun and entertaining,” Stull said. “Hollywood had the Academy Awards, so why couldn’t we have a similar event focused on entrepreneurs!"

The black-tie awards program starts with networking receptions, where mingling can often lead to deal-making. The main event is a mix of entertainment, with performances by acclaimed musicians and performers, leading to the featured award recipients from categories such as General Entrepreneur, Service-based Entrepreneur, Social Entrepreneur, Emerging Entrepreneur, and The Mary Anne Fox Top Female Entrepreneur of the Year.

Meet the 2022 Spirit of the Entrepreneur finalists here.

At the end of the program, one recipient will also receive the Best of the Best Award, sponsored by Best Best & Krieger LLP. This honor goes to the person who best exemplifies what it means to be an entrepreneur.

Several notable names have received the signature Spirit Award — Garner Holt, founder of Garner Holt Productions, the late Stater Bros. CEO Jack Brown, and the late Baker’s Burgers founder Neal Baker all were honored with Lifetime Achievement Awards.

Looking back on the last 20 years, Stull has countless fond memories of ceremonies past, including performances by Eddie Money and Troy Clarke & His Big Band Orchestra, but his favorite just might be when Holt was recognized with this Lifetime Achievement Award in 2019.

“We completely surprised him, and his emotional speech was one for the ages,” Stull said.

To be nominated, a person must meet two requirements: be in business for at least two years and have a minimum annual revenue of $400,000. Beyond that, nominees should be an innovator with a solid character known for having an entrepreneurial mindset and a record of strong leadership and performance.

Judges are selected based on their business experience and integrity and work independently of one another to evaluate the nominees, with almost all being previous winners of a Spirit of the Entrepreneur Award.

Proceeds from the event go to the IECE’s Spirit of the Entrepreneur Scholarship Fund, which provides grants to the next generation of entrepreneurs. Since 2003, more than $225,000 worth of scholarships have been awarded to CSUSB students with measurable needs who are studying entrepreneurship.

CSUSB students also have the opportunity to participate in the Garner Holt Student Fast Pitch Competition. Every year, the IECE holds this innovative semi-final qualifying competition at the event’s named sponsor’s headquarters – Garner Holt Productions a week prior to the Spirit Awards gala. Up to 15 student entrepreneurs have the chance to give a 90-second pitch of their business idea to local investors.

The students are judged by the panel, and the top five student pitchers move on to the finals at the Spirit of the Entrepreneur Awards. There, they deliver their pitches in front of the live audience, where the audience will vote to determine the winner who will receive the $4,000 cash prize. In years past, students who presented especially impressive pitches have dazzled investors in the crowd and secured funding for their ventures.

There is always something in the works at the IECE. Last year the center collaborated with the CSUSB School of Entrepreneurship to produce the region’s first-ever State of Entrepreneurship Report, which examined the trends and challenges of entrepreneurship in the Inland Empire. This year, the IECE has launched several new initiatives, including the Catapult Business Growth Network. Over the course of this intensive six-session program, entrepreneurs learn how to position their businesses for measurable growth.

The IECE is a driving force behind the economic expansion in the Inland Empire, and the proof is in the numbers — through its counseling, mentoring and training programs, the IECE has served more than 150,000 entrepreneurs, supported the creation and retention of nearly 40,000 jobs, assisted with the startup of almost 2,000 new ventures, and had an economic impact in excess of $400 million.

“We are very proud that the IECE has grown to become one of the largest university-based Centers for Entrepreneurship in the world,’ Stull said. “Since entrepreneurship is such an important driver of our local economy, having such a vibrant and impactful program such as the IECE is critical to supporting local businesses and their startup and growth.”

Visit the Spirit of the Entrepreneurship website for more information.