Ivy Leaf - Spring 2007
The Entrepreneurial Spirit
By Jennifer Babulsky
Dreams of being "The Donald," minus the fluffy comb-over, and having a slew of employees working for them are what some college students call a golden future.
But who says these students have to wait until after graduation to make their dreams come true? Some Penn State Altoona students have the best of both worlds—still learning and growing in a college atmosphere while creating their own businesses.
At an age when his peers were just getting over puberty, Michael Rethage was his own boss.When he was 14, Rethage, from Apollo, Pennsylvania, created Sound Revolution, a disc jockey business.
"When I started the DJ business, it was kind of a fluke," the 22-year-old college senior says. "I was in the marching band, they were having a Halloween party, and they needed someone to play music. We had speakers in my basement, a cassette player and a portable CD player. I had a really good time, and that spawned other things."
At first, his parents had to drive him to gigs and he had to rent equipment, but by the age of 16 or 17, he had the equipment paid off and a growing list of clients. Currently, Rethage DJs at least twice a month in the Pittsburgh area.
When not entertaining roomfuls of people as a DJ, he's majoring at Penn State Altoona in business with a concentration in marketing and management, as well as financial services. He is also earning credits toward a minor in entrepreneurship.
Leading him further down the path to being a true entrepreneur is yet another business venture, Wider Image LLC, a collage poster undertaking based out of his Altoona apartment. The idea for his latest endeavor came from the panoramic poster he created of PNC Park in Pittsburgh. How about selling panoramic posters of places like Beaver Stadium, he thought.
No go. Licensing issues prevented him from selling certain images, but he was not swayed. Like any successful businessman, he simply altered his plan. Instead of selling panoramic posters showing famous sites, he helps people create their own memorable places. Clients give him 100 photographs that he turns into collage posters. Wider Image LLC was created in November 2006; since he began selling posters in February, he already has numerous clients, including the Student Life Office at Penn State Altoona.
"I think I've always wanted to really make a go of it and be my own boss," he says. "The DJ thing, I don't see it as my sole job, but I can see this [Wider Image] easily growing. I like doing it and putting the posters together, and sales and marketing is the area I'm interested in."
A NATIONAL TREND
Rethage is not alone. The Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation in Kansas City, Missouri, partners with other foundations and donors to instill entrepreneurial resources for college students and track entrepreneurial progress. While it is too challenging to track specific numbers of college students who have created their own businesses while still in school, Michelle Keller, senior communications analyst for the foundation, says the interest is definitely there.
"It's become more of a career option for them," she says. "When I was in school twenty years ago, I couldn't even spell entrepreneurial. Now these kids can not only spell it, they can point to people in their age groups doing it."
In the late 1980s, there were few entrepreneurial programs offered on the college level, she says. Since then, there has been significant change. According to the foundation, more than 80 percent of the two- and four-year accredited nonprofit colleges and universities in the U.S. teach entrepreneurship. Approximately 90 percent of the nation's 888 accredited master's and doctoral degree-granting institutions now offer entrepreneurial courses and, in most cases, multiple courses and degree options.
Donna Bon is an instructor of entrepreneurship and director of the Entrepreneurial Institute at Penn State Altoona. To her, it is not surprising to see students create businesses while still trying to graduate.
"The benefits are the knowledge base they're able to capture from individuals like professors and instructors and business leaders from the community," she says. "They get to hear firsthand what it's like. The students who are busy are good at managing their time, and another advantage is getting that experience."
Making a new business successful can be risky, but Bon says young students seem to be more willing to undertake those risks. There are, however, chances for failure.
"Initially people can fail because they fail to plan," she says. "People also might not have the commitment to run the business or enough experience. It could take sixty to seventy hours a week to make a business work, and you need to self-sacrifice."
Bon teaches her students how to create business plans as well as to anticipate and solve potential problems.
"You can't plan for everything, but it helps to have an idea in place," she says. "You need a solid foundation and you need the building blocks to support that foundation."
Even the best planning, however, can still bring hardships. Devin Mullen knows what it means to plan, but still feels like there's not enough time in the day. Mullen, 21, a junior marketing majoring from Altoona, has owned Your Jewelry Box in Altoona for the past six years, the first two years without a physical location. When not taking fourteen to sixteen credits per semester, he clocks in an average forty to fifty hours per week at the store.
"The hard part is finding time to do the schoolwork," he says. "Usually I bring in schoolwork to work for any slow time. Hindsight is always 20/20, and there have definitely been poor decisions made along the way, but there have also been great ones."
Mullen oversees seven full-time employees; each month he reviews and sets goals for the store, looking at what's been done well and what can be improved. Through it all, Mullen has learned how to delegate and not to be too hard on himself.
"It's extremely easy to become discouraged in business whenever you set goals for yourself," he says. "But be confident, be realistic, and don't lose sight of what you want."
By setting realistic goals in both business and academics, Mullen says he has created a haven for himself after graduation."I feel lucky, I know that when I get out of college and graduate, I will have something I already know how to do well."