University of Vermont

University Communications


Fast Bucks

"Dollar enterprise" projects give students a whirlwind tour of entrepreneurship

By Kevin Foley Article published November 2, 2005

Dollar Enterprise
Age of enterprise: Junior Corey Beach is part of one of 10 entrepreneurial teams fanned out across campus to put their CDAE studies into practice. (Photo: Kevin Foley)

Corey Beach’s table under the Bailey/Howe portico is dressed in nubby fabric and decorated with skeins of rich-colored yarn, a butternut squash and a display of news from Darfur. Her wares, her homework, merino scarves, thick felt mittens, soft woolen hats, are arrayed in an artful line.

Beach and two other knitters are running a “dollar enterprise,” an immersive three-week activity dreamed up by Kathleen Liang, associate professor of community development and applied economics. Liang’s view is that the best way to learn about entrepreneurs is to become one, so she staked her students with a buck each, then challenged them to pony up another dollar to identify a niche and develop their own businesses. The professor first became a venture capitalist last spring, when she adapted an existing course to include a limited version of the enterprise project, but this semester is the first time students will move through a full “business cycle.”

“They have to identify ideas, test markets, make sure the timing is right. Once they find out that they have customers, they have to design strategies to produce their goods, market them, manage a team, evaluate outcomes,” Liang says. “To make a cupcake is not that different from making a robot or a vacuum machine. It’s the same procedure if you’re doing it right.”

Given their limited seed capital, less than $20 per group in most instances, student strategies quickly centered on low-cost, high-margin goods like cupcakes, or on quickly enlisting in-kind donations from community partners like Shelburne Orchards and adding value to them. Other student enterprises are marketing T-shirts (“Groovy UV” models based on donated shirts), homemade jewelry, gift baskets, trail mix and more. The profits are going to charity, and the numbers add up: The class raised almost $1500 in their first week of operations.

Liang freely admits that the angles of most of the student enterprises aren’t novel — bake sales at Bailey/Howe are a staple of club fund-raising — but says that the classroom and practical experiences amplify each other, communicating a powerful message about what it means to be an entrepreneur.

“This is taking students to a higher level of business skills and training so they can put everything together as a package,” she says.

Beyond case studies
From regulation (staying on the right side of Sodexho and campus officials) to outsourcing (have you ever tried to knit up a storm of orders during midterms?) to product differentiation to low-budget whimsy (spirographs, anyone?), the nearly 100 students in Liang’s “Introduction to Agricultural and Resource Entrepreneurship, Entrepreneurship and Society” class are getting a full-spectrum introduction to the challenges of real-world enterprise.

“It’s not like any class I’ve ever taken before. I’m loving doing this project,” Beach says.

She and two other partners decided to transform their avid interest in knitting into a business. They chose projects based on ease-of-completion, cost of materials and wide appeal, and focused their tabling on just two days. Sales have far exceeded expectations, even of the $25 merino scarves, so the team has “outsourced” some orders to friends in the knitting club.

A bake sale team called “Cookies for Kitties,” which elected to raise funds for the local humane society, is handling production on its own. Their table is bedecked with thick chocolate brownies, buttery “carmelitas,” and a plate of cookies. “All from scratch,” says Rebecca Snow, a junior majoring in ecological agriculture.

Snow and teammate Meg Nelson initially say that the table feels more like a bake sale than a business, but as conversation continues they allow that there are some crucial differences.

“One way it feels a lot like a business is that we had to call everybody in the world about it rather than just put out a table,” Snow says.

“It’s good because it’s hands on. Rather than just reading about case studies, we’re out there doing it,” Nelson adds.

And the charitable aspect is also motivating.

“We want to raise as much as we can. There’s some competition among groups in the class, but mostly we want to do as much as we can for the humane society,” Snow says.

In dollar enterprise — unlike real enterprise — the bottom line isn’t paramount. Liang sees the course as a chance to compare theory with practice. She also envisions it as part of a larger effort within her college’s entrepreneurship program to get students practical experience and make a difference in the community. For Beach, it’s an opportunity to sell some of the knitted goods she’s been making for the past several years, something she’s always wanted to do but hasn’t had the time for.

“Even if we lose money, that’s not what the class is about,” Beach says. “We’re going to do a report on our business strategy and how it played out, and we’ll be graded on our analysis, not our profit.”

Meanwhile, with her last exam before finals completed, she is knitting furiously to make her group’s Nov. 30 delivery date. “During lunch, between classes, I’ll knit,” she says.

Most dollar enterprises will continue operations through the end of next week, Nov. 11.