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In a region with an economy historically dominated by large, national companies like Sargento Foods, Johnsonville and Kohler Co., Lakeland University is taking steps to help develop small business activity and entrepreneurship in Sheboygan County.
June 8 will mark the grand opening of the liberal arts institution’s new hub for experiential learning and entrepreneurship, at the Jake’s Café building in downtown Sheboygan. The university acquired the advertising agency-turned-co-working space at 529 Ontario Ave. earlier this year, with funds donated by Herbert Kohler Jr. on behalf of Kohler Co. and Richard and Kristin Bemis of Sheboygan Falls-based Bemis Manufacturing Co.
Now known as “Jake’s, A Lakeland Community,” the new center bolsters the university’s existing co-op education program, which places students in jobs with area companies to gain professional work experience, while also earning up to 25% of their four-year credit requirement and wages to defray their tuition cost.
Under Lakeland’s ownership, Jake’s will remain the home office of its existing roster of entrepreneurs and business owners, but students will head up the facility’s daily operations. That includes bookkeeping, marketing the space to potential new tenants and coming up with creative ways to activate the building. That work will be part of Lakeland’s Launch program, which allows students to develop and run their own businesses, and Develop U, which hosts workshops and training programs for area employers.
“I think what’s most exciting, especially in this first year, is the students are going to be part of the planning and vision,” said Beth Borgen, president of Lakeland. “We don’t know yet exactly what it’s going to be, but part of that is going to be our students’ learning process.”
For Lakeland, which has its main campus in Plymouth, taking over Jake’s Café is an opportunity to tap into a market of incoming students who might not have considered the university otherwise, said Borgen. Ultimately, her vision is to become known as a university that has the resources to turn students into ready-made entrepreneurs.
“It’s my dream that I can say, ‘Come to Lakeland with an idea – it can be a big idea, it can be a small idea. You might want to run a coffee shop, or maybe you’ve got this brilliant idea for the next big technology. With our cooperative education program and this program with Jake’s, we’ll help you hone that idea, and within four years, you’ll graduate, you’ll have a business plan, a marketing strategy and hopefully seed money.’”
The plan is to secure seed funding through private investors in Jake’s as well as the Sheboygan County Economic Development Corp.
Beyond the goal of expanding its reach, Lakeland sees the Jake’s initiative as a vehicle to growing the pipeline of innovators and entrepreneurs to the surrounding region.
Lakeland’s near-2,500-student population represent 24 countries, and about 80% of graduates stay within a 100-mile radius of campus, said Borgen. With its co-op education model, students start planting roots and building a network in the broader community well before graduation, and that makes them more likely to stay, she added.
“We’re providing our students with transferable skills. We don’t know what their careers will be in 20 years, but we want hard working, creative thinkers, problem solvers, good communicators because whatever their careers are in 20 years, they’re going to need those skills,” Borgen said. “We firmly believe we’re setting our students up to be as successful as possible, and it could be that they’re starting a small business, or it could be that they’re going to work for one of these amazing companies in our backyard. They (too) want an innovative thinker and a problem solver.”
For one 2005 Lakeland University graduate, the road to finding success as a female business owner in Sheboygan County had more twists and turns than it likely would today. Caitlin Brotz is the owner of a handful of local businesses, including Olivü 426, which sells natural personal care products at its downtown Sheboygan retail store and online. She opened the business in 2006, after earning her business entrepreneurship certification at Collin County Community College in Dallas, Texas.
“When I first started, I don’t think that woman-owned entrepreneurship was something that was meant for a real job opportunity,” said Brotz. Growing up, she recalls hearing stereotypes that women who owned businesses on Main Street were doing it as a pastime with funding from their husbands.
“When I wanted to start my business, there were no local resources for entrepreneurs, which is why I took my education down to Dallas,” she said. “And certainly, when I started, Facebook wasn’t there yet, so getting the word out about a business opening was a little bit more difficult to manage.”
The world of entrepreneurship is much different today, especially for owners of small retailers like Olivü with the rise of e-commerce and social media. When the business launched its online ordering platform several years ago, it was a big deal to get one or two orders in a single day. Today, Olivü averages 30 to 50 online orders per day.
Brotz said the resources for small business owners in Sheboygan County have grown “tremendously.” What’s more, shoppers have become more interested in supporting local, small and minority-owned businesses, especially in the wake of COVID.
From Brotz’s perspective, Jake’s fills a need for skills that aren’t always taught in the classroom. She expects the local business community to rally around the project in support of the next generation of innovators and leaders.
“Our community is so good at identifying the need for more entrepreneurs in the area,” she said. “… The marriage between Jake’s Café, Sheboygan Economic Development Corp. and young, budding minds is going to be a very good move for the city because it’s going to help teach young people how to think like an entrepreneur and to see (being) an entrepreneur as a viable job.”