Students Overcome Long Odds to Establish Small Businesses
Enterprising College of Wooster entrepreneurs get a boost from experiential learning opportunities
WOOSTER, Ohio — Nearly half of all small business initiatives fail in the first five years of operation according to statistics provided by the Small Business Administration, but a hearty group of student entrepreneurs from The College of Wooster seems undaunted by those figures.
Five students are actively involved in fledgling businesses, and four others are preparing to launch their entry into the business world. "It's a scary, exciting, surreal, and risky experience, all at one time," says Bailey Connor, a junior anthropology and economics double major from The Woodlands, Texas, who has started Carica Road (named after the street she grew up on in Florida), an operation that manufactures upscale backpacks made from coffee sacks. "I have no idea what is going to happen, but I know I would not have gotten into this without the encouragement of APEX (the Advising, Planning, and Experiential Learning Center at Wooster), Launch (Wooster's entrepreneurship club, which she helped to rename), and Reach Trade (a coffee-for-clean water start up that works with farmers in Peru in an effort to provide water filters for communities in that country)."
Connor, who spent part of her spring break registering her business as an LLC, filing tax forms, and establishing an employer I.D., has always had an interest in owning her own business. "I want to work for myself," she says. "I realized through this experience that I could do it."
Each of the nine students has a slightly different story, according to Peter Abramo, director of Wooster's center for entrepreneurship. "When I saw the numbers (of students involved in start-up endeavors), I said, 'wow, we really have a lot going on here,'" says Abramo. "We encourage the spirit of entrepreneurship, but it is the students who must take the initiative."
Student-run businesses are part of a growing trend nationwide, says Abramo, and Wooster students have jumped on board. "Our thought has been, 'we're a college, you're here to learn, let us help to mentor and guide you,'" he says. "One of the best ways to learn is to actually start a business. With this approach,success is not measured by whether or not a business becomes viable. It's about the experience."
And so far the experiences have been encouraging. In addition to Connor, Tarik Welch, a sophomore business economics major from Belmont, Mass., is marketing a line of street-wear clothing for the "skateboard crowd," and he's actually making money. Products include sweaters, hoodies, and t-shirts all marketed under the "Juice" logo, chosen, he says, because of his last name (Welch's juice) and because it stands for the company's motto: "Justified Understanding In Creative Expression."
Welch's brother designed the logo, which he describes as "simple and easy to recognize." But not everything has been simple for the Welch Brothers. "We wasted $400 trying to get a trademark through the U.S. patent office," he laments. "We should have just gone to a lawyer."
Inspiration for the Welches' business came while surfing the Internet. "We were looking at street-wear companies online, and thought we could come up with a better design," says Tarik. Currently, the brothers are producing merchandise from their home in Massachusetts, and sales have been brisk — almost too brisk. "It can be overwhelming at times," says Tarik. "People want to order shirts, but we don't have time to produce them. As a student, I have a lot of other things to do."
A third venture is Fahim Aziz's "Backpack," a tech startup that operates on a global scale and aims to change the global trade landscape to make the world more connected and aware. His sophisticated online endeavor enables prospective shoppers to connect with travelers, who can provide access to literally every product in the world. Aziz explains the process this way: "If an individual is looking for an item that is available only in France, that individual can go to our website, search the system, and find someone traveling there who would be willing to purchase the product. The traveler receives a service fee for the purchase; the shopper receives the product without the excessive international shipping fees; and we make our money through ad revenue on the site."
Aziz and his co-founder, high school friend Sakib Sauro, launched the website six weeks ago, and currently it is operational in 86 countries. The primary language is English, but they hope to add Chinese, Spanish, and other languages in the months ahead.
A double major in economics and mathematics from Bangladesh, Aziz credits Wooster for the early success of Backpack. "I have been encouraged to take calculated risks through my professors and other mentors on campus," he says. "They provided a path for me, and above all else, taught me how to ask important questions."
The foundation for many of the students' foray into the business world is provided by Abramo's Introduction to Entrepreneurship class. They also benefit from their participation in the entrepreneurship club and various grants, fellowships, and contests that provide cash awards. "They come to us with an idea," says Abramo. "We help to get them started."
The bottom line is that the student business owners are learning countless invaluable lessons — both productive and painful — and many of the most important ones are coming out in the field.