In business, 25 years is a lifetime — and more than a lifetime.

When the Ernst & Young Entrepreneur of the Year awards were first given in Utah 25 years ago, the economy was different. The world business climate was different. In many cases, the types of businesses entered in — and honored by — the program were different.

Some of the companies that received awards the first year are long gone, out of business or swallowed up by larger firms or renamed. Others have endured, grown, adapted and become legends of Utah's business community.

Then and now, the center of the program is recognizing and nurturing entrepreneurial skill, said David Jolley, managing partner of Ernst & Young Utah.

"(The Entrepreneur of the Year Program) is still, at its core, a program designed to recognize, honor and celebrate the accomplishments of entrepreneurs in our communities that are so fundamental to the strength of our economy," Jolley said in an email response to questions from the Deseret News.

Having said that, Jolley acknowledged that, in the past 25 years, the Entrepreneur of the Year Program's "scope and visibility" have grown greatly, both in Utah and beyond the state's borders.

"(It has) truly become one of the most prestigious award programs to recognize entrepreneurs in the United States as well as around the globe," Jolley said.

Then and now, Jolley said, the honored entrepreneurs share the ability to see opportunities where others may not, nearly relentless determination and a desire to, as he put it, "cut their own path."

Jolley has two-and-a-half decades' worth of stories to back that up. There was the single mother and college student who founded a business that now trains other women in similar circumstances — in ways they can fit into their schedules — to gain job skills and become self-sufficient.

Or, he recalled, there was a young CPA who became frustrated at the lack of scheduled air service between Salt Lake City and St. George. Rather than merely complaining, as countless others likely had, he paired with his uncle to fly a six-seat turboprop airplane between the two cities a couple of times a week — and that service grew into SkyWest, one of the world's largest regional airlines, which flies thousands of routes a year.

"That former CPA is still the CEO today," Jolley said. "These (stories) are similar to hundreds of others that we hear each year — truly inspiring and motivational. They give us hope that, despite our current economic woes, the entrepreneurial spirit will lead our economy out of this downturn."

Over the years, the Ernst & Young Entrepreneur of the Year Program has evolved to include recognition for entrepreneurial leaders of nonprofit and philanthropic organizations — a development Jolley said reflects a common evolution among individual entrepreneurs.

Take that single mom mentioned earlier, he said. After creating an online education company and taking it to the heights of success, she sold the company for tens of millions of dollars and has since focused her considerable leadership and business skills on "giving back" to her community and country.

"We see entrepreneurs go through various distinct stages over the course of their careers," Jolley said. "Generally, those stages can be categorized as 'learn,' 'earn' and 'return.' Over the past few years, we have definitely seen an increase in focus on the 'return' phase of the entrepreneurial life cycle."

However, he added, there has been a shift in the way that entrepreneurs accomplish that "return." In the past, a company would donate to a preferred outside charity or start an in-house foundation.

Now, many leaders want to get more involved than that, Jolley said.

"In the past, it has primarily been through charitable contributions," he said, "whereas we are seeing more of these business leaders apply their entrepreneurial skills to develop social programs that are 'self-sustaining' —more 'entrepreneurial.' "

Entrepreneurial, indeed. Just like 25 years ago.

Email: skratz@desnews.com

Awards gala

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When: Thursday, June 23, 6:30 p.m.

Where: Salt Palace Convention Center

Finalists: 31 entrepreneurs from across the Utah region, representing 24 companies

Details: This is the 25th anniversary of the Ernst & Young Entrepreneur of the Year Program in Utah. Blake Roney of Nu Skin Enterprises will receive the 2011 Utah Region Lifetime Achievement Award.