Kevin Learned: Entrepreneur, Teacher, Angel

Editor’s Note – This story originally appeared in the Idaho Business Review by Sharon Fisher and reposted with permission by the Angel Capital Association.

Kevin Learned is on his third career, and he’s not done yet.  To many Idaho companies, Kevin Learned isn’t just an icon, he’s ang angel.  That’s “angel” as in angel investing, where people invest money early in a new company’s career to help it get off the ground.  But that’s only what he’s done most recently.  While most of use are satisfied with a single career, Learned has had three. 

“Basically, I bore easily,” he said.  Learned started his career in entrepreneurship and small businesses, attending prestigious East Coast schools.  That meant leaving Idaho , where he had lives since his parents moved when he was a child.  “My parents, when the war was over, didn’t know where else to go,” he said.  “They had some family here.”  Learned went to Borah High School.  “I always know, from the data I left, that I would be coming back to Idaho,” he said.

He earned his bachelor of arts degree in economics at Yale, followed by a master of business administration in accounting at Wharton.  Later, he went on to earn a Ph.D. in entrepreneurship at Texas Tech.  “The thing I’ve been passionate about since before it was fashionable was entrepreneurs and their impact on the economy,” Learned said.  “When I graduated from Wharton, everyone went to Wall Street or large consulting firms or large businesses,” he said, adding that the school didn’t even have a course in entrepreneurship or small businesses at the time.  “I was one of the few people who said “I’m going to figure out how to do my own thing here.””  Partnering with Gary Mahn, who went on to become the owner of Fishers Technology, they formed Learned-Mahn Software, arguably Idaho’s first software company ,which developed and marketed personal computer software to the banking and hospital industries.  Eventually, after Learned’s departure, the company was sold to National Data Corp.

That experience led Learned to realize the importance of small business and entrepreneurship to the U.S. economy.  “Amazon, Apple, Facebook, these companies were all created in the last few decades,” he said.  “That’s been my guiding light.”  After Learned left that business, he went on to his second career.  Most of all, Learned is a teacher.  He became an associate professor in entrepreneurship and business strategy, then associate dean for the Boise State University College of Business and Economics.  “I love teaching,” Learned said.  “To this day, I still teach.  I thoroughly enjoyed working with students.  Some of these students I’ve kept lifelong relationships with.”

One of them, Denise Dunlap is now one of his business partners.  “He was universally liked by the students because a) he had real-world experience in the subjects he was teaching, and b) he was known to use spicy language in class – both characteristics were unusual in the faculty at the time,” she said in an email message.  “I liked him right away because it was obvious he was a doer and not a talker.””

“I had three points,” Learned said.  “One was entrepreneurship, one was teaching and mentoring and the third was how do we make more capital.”  Then Learned got interested in administration and held a variety of positions, including serving as president of the Albertson College of Idaho.

“He still has an “Impeach Kevin” t-shirt framed on his office wall from when he was president of Albertson College and some of the students were advocating for his removal,” Dunlap said.  “When I asked why he keeps that, he said it was a constant reminder to stay humble.”

The problem with administration is that it gets you further away from the students, Learned mused.  “The pinnacle was getting to form the Venture College” at Boise State in 2012, teaching students across disciplines the skills needed to successfully launch their own business,” he said.  “Many of the students I had at Venture I’m still close to.”  Being a counselor at the Small Business Development Center led to Learned becoming an angel investor, based partially on his experience at Learned-Mahn.  “We raised angel capital,” Learned said.  “I didn’t know the word for it.  I didn’t know that’s what we were doing, but it turned out well for us.”

But there was more to it than that.  “In part, it was give-back time,” Learned said.  “When I was a young man, people put money on my head.  I couldn’t build a company without investors.”  That gets into Learned’s philosophy about angel investing, with echoes of the teacher he once was and still is.  “Angel capital is not a contribution, but the choice to make a portion of your investable assets, he said.  “I feel an obligation to put money on the next generation’s head.  I hope to make money in the process- I’s note completely altruistic, but some of it is.”

As part of that, Learned served as president of the Boise Angel Alliance and the co-founder of the Boise Angel Fund, Treasure Valley Angel Fund, Capital City Angel and Gen State Angel Fund.  He has also served as a member of the finance committee for the Idaho Technology Council and a board member of Tech Connect.  Most recently, Learned volunteered for the board of directors of the Angel Capital Association in an effort to help improve the angel system for the benefit of the country.  That includes teaching course sin entrepreneurship at Angel University.

Learned has also served on boards or advisory boards of several firms, including Apex Technology, Medical Management, GoGo Labs, GenZ Technology and BlacRac Manufacturing where he still serves.  Professionally, Learned is the co-founder of two investment companies, Look Creek Capital Group and Sage Growth Capital, which formed last year.  Loon Creek provides services and expertise to accredited private investors across the U.S. to establish and manage angel investment syndicates, while Sage Growth makes revenue-based investments in growing early stage companies that are seeking non-dilutive capital to help fund growth.

“I’ve only known Kevin for less than tow years, and he has already made a huge impact on my life,” said Molly Otter, one of his Sage Growth partners.  “His vibrant energy was on of the main drivers for my signing up to start Sage Growth Capital with him and Denise Dunlap.  That lust for life and enjoying what he is doing has made it an incredibly fun and rewarding experience, not to mention his incredible sage advice.  They say “older is wiser,” and in this case, it really is true.  All of his experience brings such great insights to his investment philosophy and his business partnerships, and I have enjoyed getting to know him and learned from him.”

Sage Growth has partnered with two Idaho-based food companies, Melt Organic, which produces plan-based dairy projects, and Killer Creamery, which makes keto ice cream with no sugar.  What’s next?  In some sense, Learned considers himself already retired.  “Nobody pays me a salary,” he said.  “I don’t have any obligations to get up and go to work at 7:30 in the morning like I used to.  I’m a little more relaxed.  I spend more time reading the newspaper and drinking coffee and working out and those kind of things.  I’m enjoying that phase of my life.  You don’t have the energy and can’t work the way you used to, but I’m sure I put a good 30-35 hours a week in to work-related things.”

That said, Learned doesn’t have any plans to retire per se.  “I don’t think my mind would allow me to be happy if I didn’t have some intellectual challenge.”  Learned has also backed away from some of his civic commitments, which had been part of his philosophy of giving back.  “I have long been a volunteer for civic organization,” he said.  “I have always believed that we have an obligation to give of our time where and when we can.”  That included serving as president of the Boise Public Schools Foundation, executive committee member of the Boise Metro Chamber of Commerce, member of the board of the Boise Metro Economic Development Council, chair of the Idaho Business Council, member of the executive committee and co-chair of the higher education committee for the Idaho Business Council on Education Excellence, president of the Rotary Club of Boise, district governor for Rotary International, president and twice campaign chair of the United Way of Ada county, and on the campaign steering committee and executive committee for the YMCA.  Currently, he is a member of the Bogus Basin Recreation Association.

At the same time, Learned is thinking about what’s next.  He has tow years to go on the board of the Angel Capital Association, and he has recruited a vice chair to take over for him at Angel University in a couple years.  “I spend a third of my time on angel capital, and that’ll wind down over the next two years,” he said.  “I’ll need to replace that with something.”  That could be getting more involved with Loon Creek and Sage Growth.  “I’m privileged to be in business with Denise and Molly,” he said.  “I’ll continue as long as they think I’ll bring some value.  I could put more time into those, or I’ll find something else.”

“Something else” also means family.  “I spend a lot of time with my grandchildren,” Learned said.  “For example, I have/am holding four different Granpa Camps this summer.  In the first, I took the three Boise grandchildren to Yellowstone Park.  I will spend up to a week with each individually doing things that they want to do.  Last week, I took our 9-year-old granddaughter to McCall to horseback ride and to a ropes course.  Next week we’ll take our 12-year-old grandson on a float trip down the Middle Fork.”

In the meantime, he and his wife, Amy, have no intention of leaving Boise.  “I’m beginning to think, “What’s next?” and I don’t know wat’s next, “ Learned said.  “Something will be next.  I’m just beginning to think about that.  I’ll be busy.  As soon as I figure out what’s next, I’ll let you know."