Katherine Cota brings extraordinary preparation to her post leading the new Carlsen Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship. (Sacramento State/Andrea Price)

Katherine Cota, founding executive director of Sacramento State’s Dale and Katy Carlsen Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship, was no ordinary girl.

She was 12 when she launched her first business, looking after pets, babies, houses, and the elderly in her Iowa neighborhood. She even hired herself out as the companion of a woman afraid to be alone when her husband traveled.

Cota ran the business for five years. Her services were in such demand that she farmed out babysitting jobs to other teens.

“The purpose of the business,” she says, “was to understand the value of money, how to budget, the value of philanthropy and helping others, responsibility, accountability, and honoring one’s word."

If that sounds like mature thinking for a 12-year-old, it’s simply how Tom Cota raised his daughter.

“He’s the same man who said I could not drive the car until I understood how a car worked and was able to change my own oil and a tire,” she says. “He was very practical.”

And so is Cota, who as the Carlsen Center’s new director, is mapping the future of entrepreneurship and innovation for Sacramento State’s students. Her first task was to design the 10,000-square-foot center on Floor 1½ of University Library.

“It’ll be ‘very mod, very pod,’ ” she says. “There’ll be no walls but lots of movable glass partitions for students to sketch and write on. They have ideas, and they will want to get them down right away. Chairs and tables will be on wheels. Sofas will break apart. They will create spaces that suit them.”

Knowing how people like to congregate in home kitchens, she designed a cozy kitchenette with tall café-style tables and a coffee bar. She also designed a “telephone booth,” a quiet room where small groups of students can retreat from what promises to be a loud, lively atmosphere.

“Chaos and energy will abound,” Cota says of the Carlsen Center. “Students will be running up and down the halls.”

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A $6 million gift from Dale Carlsen, ’84 (Business Administration) and his wife, Katy, seeded their namesake center, which is expected to elevate Sac State’s role as a driving force for the regional economy and inspire generations of students to become creative thinkers.

“Ultimately, we hope to be a model for other U.S. cities and beyond,” Cota says. “The Carlsen Center will be a part of creating a community that embraces and celebrates its diversity to drive its economy.”

She came to Sacramento State from the University of Northern Iowa, in Cedar Falls, where she was associate director of the John Pappajohn Entrepreneurial Center and the school’s intellectual property officer. Under her leadership, the center was named the 2016 “student entrepreneurship program of the year” by the International Business Innovation Association.

She left the thriving Pappajohn Center to launch an upstart halfway across the country.  

“That program is at a good maturity stage for someone to just manage it,” she says “I like the creation side better.”

Cota’s first day at Sac State was July 16.

"We are excited to have Katherine join our campus to lead the Carlsen Center," says Provost Ching-Hua Wang. "Her vast amount of experiences leading an internationally recognized center will help make our Carlsen Center a success and promote our university as an anchor institution in the region.”

Cota was familiar with the Sacramento area before arriving at Sac State. She invested in a Granite Bay wrestling academy founded by a student she mentored at the Pappajohn Center and traveled in and out of Northern California for two years. She also spent time in Colorado and considered moving there. After renting a house in Auburn for a month, she decided that California was the place to be.

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Katherine Ann Cota, who almost always wears her blond hair in a ponytail, was raised on the edge of Rock Creek State Park, seven miles from Grinnell, Iowa. Her family home was one of 100 residences on the south side of the park’s manmade lake. Her grandparents had their summer house across the road. She always had pets: dogs, cats, birds, hamsters, mice, rats, snakes, chickens, and even “pretty” snails.

“It was the typical assortment of animals any country kid would have,” she says. “It was a great way to grow up.”

Her father was an efficiency expert for the U.S. Postal Service, meaning that he identified and fired underperforming employees. His 100-mile-roundtrip commute to Des Moines allowed him to unwind before returning to his family at the end of another stressful day.

Her mother, Mary, worked at a Sears store and a pizza parlor to earn extra pocket money. The couple moved to Arizona a few years ago after Tom retired. Cota’s younger brother, Robert, lives in Des Moines with his family and sells insurance.

Cota earned her undergraduate degree in anthropology and a master’s in communications studies from the University of Northern Iowa. She also has a master’s in business administration from St. Ambrose University, in Davenport, Iowa.

She is a renaissance woman, of sorts. She writes poetry and short stories. She plays oboe, clarinet, and drums, and is teaching herself guitar and harmonica. She has a musical theater background but insists that her days in front of the curtain have passed.

She came to Sacramento with her dog, Precious, a 10-pound Papillon that fits nicely in her backpack for hiking.

“Iowa is great, but it lacks two things: ocean and mountains,” she says. “And for me, it’s about having time to go into the mountains and go to the ocean.”

And when she chose a place to call home in Sacramento, she rented a house in North Highlands. “I wanted to live in a middle-class neighborhood where I could experience a lot of different groups of people and hear what they had to say and see what they were creating in terms of commerce.

"Customers come in all shapes and thoughts and preferences, so I wanted a diverse neighborhood.”

Like father, like daughter: The commute between campus and home gives her quiet time to think, plan, “write” in her head before she puts her thoughts on paper, and listen to National Public Radio.

In addition to outlining student innovation and entrepreneurship programs for the Carlsen Center, she’s charged with raising an additional $5 million to support the work of the center.

“Our team is excited and humbled to work with entrepreneurs, innovators, and creators here at Sacramento State and the greater Sacramento region to develop businesses and organizations that have a positive influence and impact on community health and the business environment,” she says. – Dixie Reid