Kent State Blackstone program launches entrepreneur's ventures
As underclassmen in college, Krista Jordan and Miles Tucker could be focusing on their next class or how they’ll finish an upcoming study project.
Instead, Jordan and Tucker are already entrepreneurs who have successfully started businesses in the last year. Jordan sells hand-made crocheted scarves online and at a gift shop at the Akron-Canton Airport. Tucker sells an athletic skateboard clothing line online.
The 19- and 20-year-olds were able to launch and run their businesses with some expert help — all for free with no conditions for a share of profits.
They are in Kent State University’s Blackstone LaunchPad Program, which is part of a national drive to help students, faculty and alumni create businesses. It is one of four in Northeast Ohio funded by $3.2 million over three years from Hudson-based Burton D. Morgan Foundation and the national Blackstone Charitable Foundation. The others in Northeast Ohio are at Case Western Reserve University, Baldwin Wallace University and Lorain County Community College. They are among about 10 in the country right now, said Deborah Hoover, president and CEO of the Morgan Foundation.
The program does not ask for equity in the company for the mentoring and guidance. It can start with an entrepreneur’s germ of an idea and include counseling or guidance years after a business has launched, said Kate Harmon, a manager with KSU’s Blackstone project.
“It’s purely for the educational component that our services are being offered. It’s a nice add-on for our universities to try to spur economic development,” Harmon said.
Hoover said the Morgan Foundation, whose mission is to support entrepreneurship, has been working extensively with colleges and universities to spur that spirit. The foundation also supports another initiative called the Northeast Ohio Collegiate Entrepreneurship Program at the College of Wooster, Hiram College, Lake Erie College, Oberlin and Baldwin Wallace.
All the programs are “meant to demonstrate to students that entrepreneurship is a viable career path for them,” said Hoover. The Blackstone program is in its second year of a three-year cycle, at which time the foundations will re-evaluate funding. The programs have also been encouraged to find ways to sustain themselves, said Hoover.
At Kent State, the Blackstone program is a co-curricular program run outside the College of Business. There is no certificate or degree or class schedule. It is staffed by three full-time and one part-time employee and three student assistants.
Harmon said, “The client comes to us when they need our help. We help them identify the research and resources needed.”
The Kent State main campus program so far has 524 profiles created and 344 businesses or ideas now under development. The program ( www.kent.edu/blackstonelaunchpad ) also offers general audience workshops for community members.
Harmon said there are probably 10 to 12 businesses in the stage of selling a product.
“It’s a process. Because we are not in the classroom where everything is dictated, these are students who are balancing life, class and their business,” she said. “Sometimes we don’t see someone for eight months, but they already filed their paperwork through the state of Ohio and had already been in business. There are countless others we don’t know.”
While some of the businesses are making money, none are self-supporting yet.
“With most startups, it takes a while to build and pay yourself. They’re plugging along and we’re encouraged by what they’re doing,” Harmon said.
The businesses range from lifestyle-type ideas featuring retail products to high-growth technology businesses. One business was founded by a doctoral Liquid Crystal Institute student whose software business recently received a $25,000 grant from the state of Ohio’s Innovation Fund, said Harmon.
The program included a recent “Elevator Pitch” contest and an opportunity every six months for select clients to pitch their products to a group of professionals who have agreed through the Morgan Foundation to be mentors.
Here’s a look at two Blackstone clients:
Flight 4 The Cure
Krista Jordan’s hand-knit scarves and headbands are an example of what’s important to her and why she believes her product is different.
When Jordan was an infant, her young father died of leukemia. Her scarves honor her father’s memory and 10 percent of her sales go toward cancer research at the University Hospitals in Cleveland. Some of the Medina woman’s scarves feature an angel’s wing representing her father as her guardian angel.
Jordan is double-majoring in entrepreneurship and marketing. While her scarves first began selling among friends and relatives and online at www.flight4thecure.com, she got a big break in an unexpected way.
Jordan met Heather Trevis, the retail manager/buyer for MSE Brand Foods at a women’s networking event last June. MSE runs all of the vending operations at the Akron-Canton Airport. Jordan happened to go to the event to fill in for a friend who couldn’t attend. She told her story to the women in attendance.
“I’m all about starting local and supporting women. Her story was compelling and it sounded to me like she just needed a break,” said Trevis.
By October, Jordan’s goods were in the airport store and on a recent day in November, Jordan was restocking since the items were selling briskly. Her scarves are also sold at Noto, a downtown Akron boutique. Trevis said she tries to feature all locally made goods in the airport store.
Even though she’s a working businesswoman, Jordan was still a student on a recent day. Jordan had just finished telling a reporter that she sold her scarves for between $30 to $50 on her website. Trevis said she was selling them at the store for $19.99 and $24.99.
“I can be making more,” said Trevis. “Do you want me to raise my prices to match yours? It would definitely be better for you and then you’re evenly matched.”
Jordan was unsure. She looked to her Blackstone coach, Stacey Banks-Houston. She and Trevis both told Jordan it was her decision. A few minutes later, Banks-Houston told Jordan that perhaps the scarves were selling quickly at the airport because of the price point, so she should give some thought to her pricing.
Trevis suggested raising the price for the holidays or offering a two-for-one sale to see whether sales would be impacted.
Banks-Houston said it’s been a delight to be the “passenger in the car” to guide businesses like Jordan’s.
“Things have come her way; she’s our star. She’s had a lot of opportunity,” said Banks-Houston.
Boy Culture Clothing
Miles Tucker has been an entrepreneur since age 13 and started his own graphic design business. He was walking past the KSU Blackstone office last October and decided to stop in to discuss an idea for creating a brand of athletic apparel for skateboarders.
Tucker said, “I didn’t want to be the average college student who goes to college and takes classes and pays back loans. I wanted to … be an entrepreneur.”
Skateboarders are conscious of what they wear and there is not an athletic line of clothing that combines graphic design T-shirts with moisture-wicking material to soak up sweat, said Tucker.
“Skateboarders skate for hours and end up shirtless or with one shirt soaked with a lot of sweat,” he said. “We are providing skaters with dry-fit comfort and graphic culture.”
His line, which is online at www.boycultureclothing.com, first started with T-shirt and sweatshirts with graphic designs. Tucker is getting ready to launch his moisture-wicking line soon. Prices range from $20 to $110.
Sales within three months of launch in March were $4,000 from his dorm room, without any marketing, said Tucker, who also used social media to create a buzz about his products.
Tucker took the summer off and has taken this semester off as a KSU student for personal reasons, but is planning to re-enroll this spring. Since he was not actively enrolled in school, his visits with Blackstone had to be curtailed, but Harmon, his coach, still kept in touch. On a recent day, Tucker was going with Harmon to a photo shoot with KSU President Lester Lefton, who had met Tucker at a 2012 Blackstone event and stopped by the program’s offices recently wanting to buy one of Tucker’s shirts.
Harmon “taught me everything from what do you want to do with your brand to business plan writing to trademarking to trying to figure out contracts,” he said.
Both Jordan and Tucker said that while their businesses may be taking off, they won’t quit school.
“Education is key. You can never learn too much. I would sell myself so short. To not finish school would not be good,” said Tucker, who is majoring in entrepreneurship with a minor in graphic design. “What if I think of something else while I’m in college that takes off?”
Betty Lin-Fisher can be reached at 330-996-3724 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter at www.twitter.com/blinfisher and see all her stories at www.ohio.com/betty
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