Investment of a Lifetime
- By Lee Ann Cox
Senior environmental studies major Robyn Bath-Rosenfeld sits behind a table inside the Davis Center weaving bright ribbon through soda can tops. The result makes a surprisingly cute bracelet. Journalist’s ethics to the wind, I buy a pink one for my daughter for a dollar, giving a whopping edge to a recycled jewelry business team in Kathleen Liang’s “Dollar Enterprise” class. Bath-Rosenfeld, who is working on a minor in community and international development, is looking to build skills that she might apply to launching a business with little startup costs in a foreign country. Effort and ingenuity are among those, and so her hands work the ribbon in and out of discarded aluminum rings. “We watched YouTube videos to learn how to make these until we had it right,” she says.
Meanwhile, standing in a chill wind outside of Bailey-Howe Library, food teams try to reel in buyers for their made-to-order Belgium waffles or warm croissants stuffed with apples, Nutella, or broccoli and cheese. Here I resist, though the money goes to charity and, in truth, students tell me that the class shares more camaraderie than competition and dollars definitely don’t determine grades.
Still, it’s this four-week all-in exposure to running a business that makes the course, officially titled “Introduction to Community Entrepreneurship,” so unique — and highly acclaimed. The class won the 2014 Best Practices Award at the National Small Business Institute Conference and was named one of Inc. magazine’s best entrepreneur courses in America last fall, among offerings from Stanford, MIT and Cornell.
When Liang, professor of Community Development and Applied Economics, dreamed up dollar enterprise nine years ago, no one thought it would work. “I’m pretty famous on campus for doing crazy stuff,” admits Liang.
Undaunted, she walked into the first class of the semester with forty-five dollars in hand and staked each student with a single bill. They would then form teams, develop a product to make and sell with their startup capital and write a business plan.
Gwen Pokalo ’08 G ’11 was there, and she still has her notes from that semester. She laughs when she recalls her business, a laundry service for students, with too many upfront costs and too few clients, not to mention an issue of washing capacity in Living/Learning at the time. “We ended up losing money,” she says, one of the only teams to do so in Dollar Enterprise history. “So that was a great experience.”
Pokalo shares what she calls Liang’s “energy of optimism,” and she’s translated those lessons into her current work — she is the director of the Women’s Small Business Program in Burlington and the founding owner of an arts management consulting business. “Kathleen expanded our comfort zones and our ability to be comfortable in ourselves,” says Pokalo.
But it goes beyond drive and personality, which is why she holds on to her notebooks from the class. “Dollar enterprise is accompanied by an awesome, hands-on relevant curriculum,” Pokalo says, “so behind the experiential learning every class focuses on the basics of being an entrepreneur, like how do you set smart goals?”
The most crucial lessons students learn, Liang says, are the importance of teamwork and professionalism. Once students come together around a project idea they are required to establish a team policy relating to work ethic and conflict resolution. Individual and collaborative leadership skills, communication skills, management of people, time, inventory, quality control, permitting, financial analysis — there’s more to that grilled cheese grabbed between classes than anyone who’s never done Dollar Enterprise would ever guess.
Ultimately, in terms of determining a future in entrepreneurism, passion is required to see all that through. Liang insists on taking the unconventional route to teaching, she says, because you need innovation and creativity to motivate students so they actually feel it. “They can read about people like Bill Gates but those are other people’s stories,” she says. “They have to have the opportunity to create their own stories.” And after it’s all over, if a student lacks the passion, the calling to be an entrepreneur, Liang feels satisfied. “I actually did more good because those people usually fail if they’ve never had this experience.”
Liang has taught the class every semester since spring 2005, though the enrollment (and subsequently her own up-front investment) has grown to roughly 140. Over the years — with more than $40,000 donated to some 350 different charities, her message of taking entrepreneurship into the community has resonated, occasionally lighting unexpected sparks of motivation. Liang is characteristically blunt about the struggles she witnessed from Lucy Perutz ’13.
“She wanted to quit school so badly, and she would sit and argue with me day and night,” Liang recalls. “I said, ‘Lucy, you spent thirty minutes complaining about your work. If you put thirty minutes into your work, you would have graduated." In fewer than six months after getting her degree, Perutz visited Liang’s class to give a talk: “I’m twenty-three and I just started my own business in Colorado,” she said. “Without (Liang) I wouldn’t be here today.’” Perutz was just profiled in the Telluride Daily Planet as the owner of Rabbit, Rabbit, a lunch hotspot in the mountain resort town serving hearty salads and soups using fresh, local, organic ingredients with business “through the roof.”
“I saw a niche here,” Perutz writes in an email to Liang. “I know you watched me struggle through the four years of UVM, but you really had a huge impact on my life and gave me so many useful and hands-on skills.”
Liang gives her students far more than a dollar. She pushes boundaries, she talks straight, and she lets them take chances. Her message: “’When you run into the wall and you don’t know what happened, what’s the choice? Are you going to stand there looking at it or figure out a way to get across? I can’t push you over it.’ But the ones who are really curious about what’s on the other side,” she says, “they will figure out a way. That’s what this class is about.”