MBA Student Wins Texas Business Hall of Fame Scholarship

Sep. 19, 2012

South Africa native Jonathan Willson has always believed in the American Dream, and for him, that includes entrepreneurship.

That dream got a boost recently when Willson, a full-time MBA student in the Naveen Jindal School of Management at UT Dallas, was named the recipient of a $10,000 scholarship from the Texas Business Hall of Fame Foundation.

MBA student Jonathan Willson was awarded a $10,000 scholarship from the Texas Business Hall of Fame Foundation.

Scholarships go to outstanding graduate business students at 20 universities throughout the state that participate in foundation programs. Applicants are challenged to demonstrate their entrepreneurial and leadership skills. The honorees will receive their scholarships in Houston at the foundation’s annual awards dinner October 30.

Part of the application process for Willson was to write a one-page essay describing his entrepreneurial achievements and future goals. “I wrote the one-pager, and then I let it sit,” he said, “because I thought no one would be interested in my story.”

Fortunately, he changed his mind.

Willson received a bachelor’s degree in commerce from the University of South Africa. He enrolled at UT Dallas after his younger brother, David, received his master’s degree in accounting from the University. Jonathan Willson is scheduled to graduate in December.

“When I decided to return to school,” he said, “I was looking for support.…I enjoy the different perspectives I experience at UT Dallas. It allows me to develop good mentors.”

The road to entrepreneurship was circuitous for Willson, who in partnership with his brother David and friend, Kai Yorke, have founded ZenFund.

“We felt this name would be memorable,” Willson said, “easy to spell, and [it] carries our message of offering simplicity for business owners hoping to discover new funding alternatives.”

The focus of the company, which they plan to launch at year’s end, will be to connect business owners seeking capital with bankers.

“When I decided to return to school, I was looking for support.…I enjoy the different perspectives I experience at UT Dallas. It allows me to develop good mentors.”

Jonathan Willson,
scholarship recipient

But this isn’t Jonathan and David’s first entrepreneurial partnership. They also teamed up to start Renoak Financial Inc. in Dallas.

“We provided mortgage financing for self-employed borrowers with jumbo financing needs,” Jonathan said.

They partnered with more than 25 banks, established a credit facility with a Texas bank and generated more than $1 million in revenue before the imploding housing market and credit crunch dried up their business.

They adapted to focus on raising capital for businesses.

Jonathan, 36, was 22 when he came to the United States with his parents and three brothers, settling in Utah. “We made the decision to come to the United States as a family,” he said. “We believed we would have more opportunity here.”

At UT Dallas, Willson also established the UTD Energy Association last spring. “I discovered when I started the MBA program that there weren’t any student organizations that provided students with an opportunity to explore jobs within the energy industry,” he said.

Willson worked for Washington Mutual in Colorado and Countrywide Home Loans in California before relocating to Dallas. He and his wife, Katie, live in McKinney with their son, Jacob, and daughter, Lily.


Media Contact: Kris Imherr, Naveen Jindal School of Management, (972) 883-4793, imherr@utdallas.edu
or the Office of Media Relations, UT Dallas, (972) 883-2155, newscenter@utdallas.edu
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