Some students don’t look for jobs after college graduation — they create them.
By SU BACON
Special to The Star
For themselves and others.
Rather than becoming employees, they prepare to be entrepreneurs by enrolling in classes that teach them how to start a company and handle the responsibilities of self-employment.
Students need not venture far from the Kansas City area. Universities and colleges in the metro area and in both Missouri and Kansas are among 3,000 nationwide ready to teach the next generation of entrepreneurs.
In 2011, Leslie Oberg graduated from Missouri Western State University with two business degrees and a franchise in hand.
Two years later at the age of 25, she owns two franchises in St. Joseph and has eight employees working for her.
Oberg said she put in work weeks of 80 to 90 hours during her first year but is glad she chose an opportunity that might not come around again: “ I didn’t want to live with regrets.”
“Millennials are exceedingly interested in being their own boss,” said Wally Meyer, director of Entrepreneurship Programs in the School of Business at the University of Kansas. “They see Steve Jobs and Bill Gates as their heroes.”
The Center for Entrepreneurship was established on the campus in Lawrence in 2005 and has since become one of the most popular programs, Meyer said, with more than 600 students a year taking at least one course in entrepreneurship.
Kansas State University also is experiencing a surge of interest in entrepreneurship.
Five years ago, the College of Business introduced a major in entrepreneurship.
“It is now the fastest growing major on campus,” said Chad Jackson, interim director of the Center for the Advancement of Entrepreneurship. “We have a waiting list for all classes.”
When a minor was offered to non-business students in 2012, more than 150 students applied for 40 openings in two days.
On some campuses, entrepreneurship programs also include financial support for students who qualify.
Oberg won the opportunity to own a franchise by enrolling in the Applied Entrepreneurship class at Missouri Western her senior year. Students in the class write and present a business plan for Rocky Mountain Chocolate Factory. Oberg placed first in the contest and chose a franchise in Iowa.
The competition, begun in 2009, is open to seniors and to alumni. Loans ranging from $50,000 to $150,000 are arranged for students winning the franchises and must be paid back within five years.
Besides presenting impressive business plans, students winning the franchise need to brace themselves for the realities of entrepreneurship.
“They have to be willing to move, to take on risk — borrow money — and willing to work hard every day,” said Mike Lane, dean of the Steven L. Craig School of Business.
Last year, Oberg sold the franchise in Iowa to another student, paid back her loan and bought two more franchises: another chocolate store and an Aspen Leaf Frozen Yogurt franchise.
“So far, everybody has paid off early,” Lane said.
Shannon Riordan, 25, of Prairie Village found herself in a situation similar to Oberg’s during the last semester of graduate school at K-State in 2012.
One month before she was scheduled to graduate with a master of business administration degree, Riordan changed her career plans dramatically when she won an entrepreneurship contest on campus.
Riordan won $3,500 in the Next Big Thing, a business proposal competition in April. So, she turned down a corporate position she had lined up and opened Chef Shannon, a small private catering company in May.
Entrepreneurship classes helped prepare Riordan for running her own business; she had been getting paid to fix food for others since high school.
In the summertime, Riordan made up menus and fliers and took orders for cookies, tilapia with mango salsa, rosemary chicken and date night dinners and desserts.
“I am absolutely happy I pursued this rather than making a safe decision,” Riordan said.
The Next Big Thing is an annual contest open to any student on the campus in Manhattan. Every year, $20,000 is awarded to individuals or teams from a donor sponsoring the competition.
So in the past five years, $100,000 total has gone to students, resulting in 30 startups, Jackson said.
At the University of Missouri, Clint Matthews, 31, of Columbia had the chance to look at such awards from the other side.
“I learned to think like an investor,” he said.
Matthews participated for three semesters in the Allen Angel Capital Education Program, a donor-supported program to educate students in analyzing business plans and investing prudently.
Local startups seeking investors made presentations to Matthews and other students in the program.
“We then did research and due diligence considering their proposals,” he said.
The students were a hard sell. The first investment wasn’t awarded until the third semester: $30,000.
Expected to prosper
The Entrepreneurship Scholars program at the University of Missouri-Kansas City is a year-long certificate program open to any student with an idea for a business.
Participants are interviewed and screened based on the likelihood of long-term success for both the idea and its creator. Anyone can apply. Students need not be enrolled at UMKC or even high school graduates. Grades are not considered.
From 350 who applied for the Class of 2013, 76 were accepted in May of 2012 and 42 graduated a year later.
“We teach students how to make money,” said Michael Song, executive director of the Regnier Institute for Entrepreneurship and Innovation.
Song said his research indicates that only 9.2 percent of new startups make it to their fifth year. He believes graduates of the scholars program have at least a 30 percent chance to make it that far.
In fact, to earn the certificate, students need to demonstrate a strong probability that they will earn $50,000 within the first year after launching their startup, and within five years the company should be able to reach $1 million in average revenues, Song said.
Tim Sylvester, 32, of Raytown hit the $50,000 mark in June with his startup, Integrated Roadways. Sylvester was a member of the first class of Entrepreneurial Scholars in 2011.
Sylvester was inspired by frustration: Years of being stuck in Kansas City construction traffic, driving over steel plates and replacing two mufflers damaged by potholes led him to develop a quicker, longer-lasting solution to road repairs and new roadways.
“Why not build a road off site and bring it in when the site is ready?” he asked himself.
So, he designed prefabricated concrete sections. The slabs are lowered into place, and there’s no waiting for poured concrete to dry.
Shane Spencer, 27, of Liberty founded GreenREIT after completing the Entrepreneurial Scholars program in 2011. He has since brought on two others and plans to launch his business —- an investment trust focused on utility-grade renewable energy such as solar, geothermal and wind —- during the first quarter of 2014.
Spencer said he discovered “a passion for real estate investment” while a freshman at William Jewell College and graduated with a bachelor’s degree in business with an emphasis in entrepreneurship.
William Jewell began offering a minor in entrepreneurship eight years ago.
“Entrepreneurship is a big part of the economic landscape in Kansas City and there is a lot of support here,” said Kelli Schutte, chair of the department of business and leadership.
The college received considerable support in April when it won a $500,000 grant from the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation to enhance entrepreneurship and innovation on campus. A director has been hired for a creativity and innovation center that will open in January.
Other plans include a Venture Capital Fund for student startups, faculty workshops and an entrepreneur mentor program.
Mature entrepreneurs, too
Although the millennial generation may be the driving force behind the increase in entrepreneurship classes on campus, the interest isn’t limited to those in their 20s and 30s.
At the age of 50, Donna Macan Yadrich of Kansas City, Kansas, is starting a business, AudreySpirit, in memory of her daughter who died in 2011 at the age of 15 from a rare autoimmune condition.
Audrey spent a lot of time in hospitals, and Yadrich adapted T-shirts that would open in the back so nurses could change Audrey’s clothes without disconnecting tubing and lines and without lifting her up.
Through the Entrepreneurial Scholars program, Yadrich was encouraged to expand on the idea and created “xamtee” shirts that allow patients privacy and comfort during exams.
An intellectual property attorney, one of the professionals assigned to mentor her, filed the paperwork pro bono for a patent on the garment.
“The E-Scholars program provided me with access to knowledge and resources that I wouldn’t have had otherwise,” Yadrich said.
In April, AudreySpirit LLC was one of the finalists in the Regnier Venture Creation Challenge at UMKC, a contest for students to present new venture ideas to local investors, business leaders and entrepreneurs.