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Advancement News

Providing the Launching Pad for Businesses (and Careers)

Posted Nov. 2, 2009

It seems an obvious proposition: College students create dirty laundry. College students don't like the hassle of washing laundry. College students might pay to eliminate that clean-clothing conundrum. Why not create a service to fill the need?

It's "inconvenient made convenient," says Ashley Fannin, '09, a managerial marketing major who joined Laundry in a Flash, a student-run startup that's among the first products of the new entrepreneurship program at Kent State's College of Business Administration. As conceived by her business partner Steve Davis, Laundry in a Flash provides bags and a twice-monthly drop-off site for a fee; students receive their clean clothes, neatly folded, the next day.

An innovative partnership with Hattie Larlham, a local nonprofit that provides jobs for individuals with developmental disabilities, makes it possible by handling the laundering service. But it hasn't all been perfect. One early misstep came when the staff purchased bags that couldn't be silkscreen printed with the company name and a sponsor's logo. So the student business owners had to research solutions to keep the project on track.

Luckily, "there's always someone around to offer assistance," Fannin says.

That's because Laundry in a Flash is one of five student-run businesses to spring out of the program and the new John S. Brinzo Entrepreneurial Lab, says Julie Messing, director of the Center for Entrepreneurship and Business Innovation. The others include an environmentally friendly school-supply store, a café located in the Kent Free Library, and a video service.

Students in the entrepreneurship major start and finish their education with experiential bookends, Messing says. The first yearlong course is when they launch a business; at the end, a practicum has them consulting and writing business plans. In between they complete the core of the curriculum, work with the college's entrepreneur in residence, compete in a variety of contests, take part in the Michael Solomon Speaker Series, and participate in a yearly Entrepreneurship Extravaganza that includes panel presentations and an opportunity to network.

"Throughout Ohio, we have one of the most comprehensive entrepreneurship programs, including a major in entrepreneurship," Messing says. "We want students to gain as much experience as possible. But we're not throwing them to the wolves; they receive coaching and guidance along the way from seasoned entrepreneurs."

A large portion of that support is apparent at the nexus of the program: the new John S. Brinzo Entrepreneurship Lab, funded with a Centennial Campaign gift from John Brinzo, a 1964 graduate who retired as the president and chief executive officer of multinational mining company Cleveland-Cliffs in 2006. The gleaming facility, with long glass walls that meet sharp wood paneling, was dedicated in fall 2008 and almost instantly became an inspiration to the students.

"The lab has had an immediate and phenomenal impact for the students," Messing says. "Student engagement has gone up dramatically, along with the energy level."

In addition to student assistants, a reception area and conference room, the young entrepreneurs have access to printers, wireless networking and other technology — and space to start their businesses.

"They actually have a launching space," Messing explains. "We call them Launching Pad One and Two, and the entrepreneur in residence is housed in Mission Control. The lab is often just filled with students coming in, and they can bounce ideas off each other, whether they're working on the same projects or not."

The Brinzo gift also includes an endowment to support the lab's activities; in future years, Messing hopes to use that funding as seed money for student-run businesses.

Brinzo has a specific intent for his gift: preparing the next generation for the workforce. "Because America is losing its competitive edge in manufacturing and jobs are being exported to developing countries, entrepreneurship and innovation are more important today than ever before," he says. "Thus, students need to learn such skills."

For Fannin, the managerial marketing major and entrepreneurship minor, the experiential learning opportunities and safety net provided by the program and lab have given her an edge with future employers. After all, she's already been the partner in a startup, even before graduation.

"There's not a similar curriculum that's so hands-on, where I can take M.B.A.-level coursework," she says. "It's preparing me because I'm already doing the things most graduates will have to learn on the job."

This story originally appeared in the fall 2009 Kent State Magazine.