- By Thomas James Weaver
There's not a test tube or Erlenmeyer flask in sight. Instead, the tables and shelves of this laboratory are filled with wool hats, beaded jewelry, handcrafted ceramics and goats'-milk soap. Though Growing Vermont, a student-operated retail store in the Davis Center, is every bit a Green Mountain gift shop, there is also some serious experimentation going on at the business and among the hundred-some entrepreneurs whose products stock its shelves.
As building planners considered options for a student-run retail store or café in the Davis Student Center, which opened in 2007, the Growing Vermont concept emerged as a way to give students real-world experience with entrepreneurship and also support Vermont business and agriculture. Both goals square nicely with the missions of the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences' Community Development and Applied Economics Department and Center for Rural Studies.
Gwen Pokalo, a 2008 UVM alumna, first worked at the store as an undergraduate when it was just starting-up. Now as a master's student studying community entrepreneurship, she oversees Growing Vermont operations and the multiple student managers who focus on particular aspects of the store such as human resources or inventory.
Beyond the students who work directly in the Growing Vermont operation, many more in Community Development and Applied Economics courses get involved through class projects that connect with the work of the store and directly with the entrepreneurs. Further developing Growing Vermont's integration with the curriculum is a key focus for Pokalo.
"If we make Growing Vermont known, we'll help make our vendors known," she says of recent marketing efforts. "We're one of the vehicles that will help our vendors succeed."
UVM alumni couple Tessa and Torrey Valyou, who started New Duds, a Colchester-based screenprinting/apparel business in 2007, are among the entrepreneurs who have benefitted from their relationship with Growing Vermont. With advice on details from invoices to tagging their products, "it's been a back and forth that has helped us streamline the way we do things," Torrey Valyou says.
"They were one of our first big sales," Pokalo says of New Duds and enthuses about their hip, innovative designs that have proven popular with students. "We can't keep their Burlington t-shirts and sweatshirts on the shelves," she adds. "People will start buying them as we're taking them out of the box and pricing them."
It's the kind of success story Growing Vermont is all about -- good news for the state's entrepreneurs, the bottom-line of the little store in the Davis Center, and the education of the students who take a role in the whole process.