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Wednesday, October 18, 2017

Student entrepreneurs find support in Entrepreneurship Alliance

Astronobeads, a jewelry business started by an MU student, has sold over $50,000 worth of bracelets in 30 different countries.

Connor Knabe stands in front of his business, Clarity Float Spa.

Courtesy of Connor Knabe

Junior Bea Doheny poses next to a map linking her bracelet orders with pictures of customers wearing her creations. Bea creates space inspired bracelets for her business Astronobeads.

Julia Hansen/Senior Staff Photographer

Director of the MU Entrepreneurship Alliance program Greg Bier.

Courtesy of Greg Bier

Junior Bea Doheny’s astronomy-themed bracelets have been worn by astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson and promoted by astronaut Scott Kelly on social media.

She has sold over 3,000 bracelets and currently employs three fellow MU students.

“I honestly thought it was going to be a little hobby I would do when I launched everything and it just really blasted off,” Doheny said. “It’s crazy to see all of the places that it’s been and the people that have reached out to me and sent me emails on how much they love their bracelets.”

Doheny’s business, Astronobeads, began with a Google search and an email to Greg Bier, the director of the Entrepreneurship Alliance program at MU. Doheny pitched her idea of solar-system inspired jewelry to Bier, and he invited her to take a class he was teaching.

“To get involved with the Entrepreneurship Alliance, the students have to take Management 4720: Experiential Entrepreneurship,” Bier said. “So, they might take that class as a freshman or sophomore, but they’ll be involved with the Entrepreneurship Alliance the rest of their college career and even beyond their college career.”

For Doheny, the EA helped set her up with a mentor, provided $1,000 in seed funding and even helped her gain access to office space in the Student Center where she builds her bracelets.

“With Astronobeads, we invested a couple hundred dollars, and here we are 10 months later and Bea has made over $50,000 in sales and shipped products to over 30 different countries,” Bier said. “That was a good investment.”

But not every EA student receives seed money or the same level of support that Doheny did. To access the full resources of the program, a student first needs to ask for it.

“If a student can give us a budget and convince us that it is money well spent, that they’ve got some skin in the game, we’ll make that investment,” Bier said.

EA students who do receive seed funding through the program do not have to share any profits or equity with the university. The seed money comes from the Don and Trudy Steen Entrepreneurship Venture Fund, which involves a $1,000,000 pledge to support the program.

“In good faith, if you are successful and you’re the next Mark Zuckerberg, please remember that you graduated from Mizzou, but there’s no strings,” Bier said. “We don’t want a student to get tied down in all of those details. We just want a student to be successful.”

For students who might need more resources than what the program can provide, beginning in spring 2018, the EA will bring certified angel investors to campus and host an event similar to the television show Shark Tank, Bier said.

“So, a student might pitch and, just like the TV show, walk away with nothing,” Bier said. “Another student may pitch and all of our alum investors are interested in that idea and they will have to negotiate the terms of what that investment looks like. The university is not going to get in the middle of that investment between our angels, our alums and that student.”

Unlike other programs on campus, the EA does not advertise or actively recruit new students.

“We kind of expect entrepreneurs to take some initiative and to find out what is going on in the entrepreneurial ecosystem on campus or around Columbia,” Bier said. “We’re not looking for a student that just wants to take a class on entrepreneurship and learn the different sections of the business model canvas, or how to write a business plan. We’re looking for a student that is willing to put themselves out there and actually pursue their idea.”

Students also learn about the program through word-of-mouth.

“Anytime someone brings up the EA who isn’t familiar with it, I say: ‘You need to take it. It’s the best class at Mizzou,’” Doheny said. “I always encourage people to look into it if it fits with their schedule. It’s just really been such a neat way to meet a whole bunch of cool people and gain a different outlook.”

Before last fall, the management class was only available to 25 students a semester. But because of student demand, a second session was added. Along with traditional classroom activities, students travel to pitch competitions and conferences, attend acting retreats, brave zipline and high ropes courses, and welcome guest speakers.

Former student Kelsey Meyer has been a recurring guest speaker for the class since she graduated in 2011, when she was a member of the program’s predecessor, the Flegel Academy for Aspiring Entrepreneurs.

Meyer went on to found Influence & Co., a content marketing firm based in Columbia that employs 65 full-time employees, about 10 part-time employees and 60 more freelance writers. Not only does she visit EA classes, but she also provides internships and jobs to students.

“A good reason to stay connected with the university and with the EA is that it’s a good talent pool that we can meet them, start doing part-time employment when they’re still in school, and when they graduate, we have a few people who we already know to look at for full-time employment,” Meyer said.

The EA attracts students from all over campus, such as Connor Knabe, who graduated from the College of Engineering in 2015.

Knabe became passionate about floating, a practice where a person floats in highly concentrated salt water, while he was still in school in 2012. The EA supported him by providing seed funding for him to attend a float conference.

In 2016, he and a business partner opened Clarity Float Spa in Columbia, the first retail storefront business started by an EA student. Clarity employs seven people and has provided over 1,000 floats to over 500 customers so far.

“Clarity more than likely would have happened with or without the EA, but it was almost like I had a fire started and the EA was like pouring gasoline on the fire,” Knabe said. “I think the biggest part of it was seeing other successful business owners talk about their stories.”

When Meyer speaks to the management class, she encourages students to reach out and connect with her. Knabe is one of the students who took advantage of the networking opportunity.

“I was intrigued by [Meyer’s] business, and I really liked what they were doing,” Knabe said. “I don’t think it was until we were working on Clarity, we were basically starting to build out the space when I reached out to her. It’s good to get some interest from a fellow EA-er who then went on to start a business.”

In April, Knabe will reverse roles and visit the class as a guest speaker.

“It’s really cool,” Knabe said. “That was such a big part of the EA for me when I took it, and to be able to contribute back to that is almost kind of surreal.”

Other ventures started by current and former students involve subjects ranging from drones to wood furniture and marketing services to apps. Other students are now working at startups or innovating in larger companies.

For some, the connections made through MU’s entrepreneurship programs are ongoing. Bier will be serving as the officiant at Meyer’s wedding later this year.

“The cool thing about EA is it’s not just your class,” Doheny said. “It’s all of the EA alums. It’s almost like that club is forever.”

Edited by Kyle LaHucik | klahucik@themaneater.com

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