Getting their hands dirty

Marquette program teaches real-world entrepreneurship lessons

Owen Raisch introduces the Marquette Student-Run Business Program at a kickoff event.

Julie Wolfla is chief executive officer of Vida, a coffee shop set to open at 84South in Greenfield in May 2019.

She’s established a partnership with Milwaukee-based socially responsible coffee company Buena Vida Coffee to supply the coffee beans, and is working with Milwaukee architecture firm Rinka Chung Architecture to develop the retail space.

“We’ve been able to connect with a lot of the professionals in the Milwaukee area, which has been really helpful,” Wolfla said.

Wolfla has done all of this while balancing her classwork as a business student at Marquette University, where she just started her sophomore year. She is a founding member of the Marquette Student-Run Business Program, which was launched in November by the Marquette College of Business Administration.

The college invested $300,000 in the effort, which is modeled after similar initiatives at Cornell University and Harvard University to teach would-be student entrepreneurs the ropes of real-life business. Marquettes’s student-run businesses will be housed under a separate nonprofit holding company, Blue and Gold Ventures Inc. Owen Raisch was hired on as associate director of the SRB Program.

“We’re focused on students learning how to manage a company,” Raisch said, including business fundamentals like management skills, recruitment and financials.

Another SRB company, the Nest Incubator, is targeted to consumer goods startups. It has established a space at 157 S. First St. in Milwaukee’s Walker’s Point neighborhood and on Sept. 15 began a pilot program in partnership with Startup Milwaukee that runs through Dec. 15. Nest plans to offer workshops, public events, retail hours and services for 10 consumer goods startups – five from local universities and five from the wider community.

At the end of August, about 15 students from six SRB startups completed a summer accelerator program run by a seventh student startup, Eagle Incubator, to test out their ideas’ market traction. Each received $5,000 in seed funding, and five to 12 advisory board members. They will now apply for inclusion in Blue and Gold Ventures this fall, Raisch said. The program is currently operating out of Milwaukee co-working space Ward4.

The student startups are:

  • Eagle Incubator, the student-run incubator for student businesses;
  • Nest Incubator, the student-run incubator for local consumer goods;
  • Buena Vida Coffee, the direct-trade coffee bean supplier, which donates a meal to children in need for every bag sold;
  • Vida, the brick-and-mortar coffee shop that plans to open at the 84South development in Greenfield;
  • ReVamp, a real estate investment venture focused on improving student housing near Marquette’s campus, with assistance from the Marquette commercial real estate program;
  • The Blockchain Lab, a Marquette program that hosts events to increase awareness of blockchain technology;
  • 1881 Event Productions, an on-campus and Milwaukee-area event management company.

Marquette College of Business Administration Dean Brian Till and Raisch have helped form the SRB Program. The pair has worked together before, previously implementing a similar program at Xavier University in Cincinnati. Till recruited Raisch in November to help build the infrastructure at Marquette.

“The great thing about Owen is he’s old enough where he’s got some experience with this, but he’s young enough where he connects with the students,” Till said.

Raisch is working to establish a national association for student-run business programs because of the impact he’s seen them create.

“Ultimately, I envision these becoming popular at campuses across the country,” Raisch said. “The students have this incredible, transformative learning experience.”

Any student in any area of study at Marquette can participate in the SRB program. While there isn’t a formal relationship with Marquette’s student entrepreneurship space, the 707 Hub, there’s some informal overlap, Till said.

The best ideas have emerged organically from the students, he said. There’s a little extra work this semester as the program is built from scratch.

Blue & Gold Ventures owns the SRB companies, so the students would cycle through those businesses rather than retaining them, Till said.

“What we want to be able to do is set up the program in such a way that it does not fall in the legal boundaries of the university,” Till said, and allows the businesses to operate more nimbly.

Each student-run business has a board of advisors, which are professionals in the community who have expertise in that type of business. Among the executives involved are Scott Yauck, who created the 84South development where Vida will be located, and Mike Zimmerman, owner of The Rock Sports Complex in Franklin, Raisch said. B&G Ventures has its own board of directors, which have legal and fiduciary responsibility for the sound management of the program.

“I first discovered the student-run business program when I was a visiting professor at Loyola Chicago,” Till said. “To me, it was this really cool idea because it was giving students these real-world, hands-on experiences while they were still a student.

“It’s a very impactful learning experience for students, and so when I came to Marquette, given what I had seen other places I had been, I thought, ‘Wouldn’t that be fantastic if we had that here?’” Till said.

The goal is to provide students with a greater depth of basic business knowledge than what they’re learning in the classroom, as well as the soft skills they’ll need in the professional world, he said.

“They’re going to have to work in teams, they’re going to bump up against problems that are unexpected, with time deadlines associated with them,” Till said.

The students are paid by the businesses, and the hope is that some of them will qualify for internship credit.

“Our hope is that these businesses are robust and viable and may continue for 15, 20, 25 years and provide a training ground then for students who come through Marquette,” Till said. “Some businesses may not successful. That’s inevitable.”

And B&G Ventures plans to create jobs in the process.

“By 2022, we expect to employ 250 students from Marquette and we expect to have at least 12 businesses up and running,” Raisch said.

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