A Southwestern Michigan College Educational Talent Search/Michigan State University Extension collaboration provided nine budding Dowagiac, Cassopolis, Niles and Edwardsburg entrepreneurs with a 15-hour virtual camp Aug. 10-14.
Entrepreneurs met author Gregory Samuel, 21, an Oklahoma State University senior majoring in political science and minoring in business. He started his own publishing company and has political aspirations, too.
“The big turning point in my life was getting my first book deal at 15 (for Love Revolt). A common question I deal with is, ‘Am I too young? What qualifies me to be an author?’ Putting yourself in that position qualifies you. My third book, senior year (In Black and White), was about racial tension,” said Samuel, working this summer for Paradigm Shift leadership-development company.
“Start now,” he urged. “There is no reason to wait to follow your dream. You’re never too young to try. If something tugs at your heart, go after it. If you fail, that brings insight into success. Make ideas into goals so they’re actionable, with timelines and deadlines.”
“There’s nothing special about me except I follow my dream,” Samuel said. “Don’t procrastinate. Do what you feel you should, even if nobody around you is doing it. You have to self-initiate. My publishing company took six years to build.”
Janice Zerbe, Van Buren County 4-H program coordinator, guided the group through five P’s: product (does it stand out from competitors?), promotion (how to convey information to customers?), price, place (storefront, online, pop-up shop?) and people (target market).
They completed Parker Team Player Surveys, a self-assessment exercise that helps individuals identify styles — contributor, collaborator, communicator or challenger.
Working in three-person teams, they launched three businesses, AJE Essential Soaps (Amy Duckworth, Justin Townsend, Elliott Roseberry), Cass County Comb Candles (Makayla Dopkowski, Ossian Duckworth, Kayla Grover) and AAT Bright Day Bracelets (Aidan Bickel, Alexus Hoy, Tiyanna Roberts) and began making products, devising logos, business cards and packaging and learning budgeting.
They practiced product pitches before presentations critiqued by Randall Laurenz of MSU and 4-H officials Hailey Harman (Cass County), Frank Cox (Muskegon County) and Kathy Pennington (Barry County).
“The presentations were amazing,” Laurenz said. “You can tell a lot of work was put into research. I’m ready to buy some products.”
Entrepreneurs quizzed a panel of 2018 SMC graduate Victoria Knight, 25, of Niles, who started Hard Hats and Heels in 2017, became a Buchanan real estate agent in 2018 and spun off Lavender and Lace to build custom wedding arbors; Douglas and Shari Large of Herbaria Healing Arts near Texas State University in San Marcos; and Dubelsa Mata-Garcia of Cornerstone Alliance Women’s Business Center, Benton Harbor, serving Cass, Berrien and Van Buren counties.
Mrs. Large, whose husband makes Native American drums and flutes, started in cosmetology and spent 20 years as a medical assistant before becoming a massage therapist. “I continue to go to school and add skills,” she said. “Always learning is really important.”
“We’ve been excited to see business owners going through this pandemic pivot from products they provide to taking a leap into new services to add value,” Mata-Garcia said. “For example, a tortilla company in Sawyer added fresh fruits and vegetables and started selling taco kits. Your path changes as needs change.”
Panelists followed a marketing presentation by SMC Vice President Mike O’Brien, who worked for the Leo Burnett agency in Chicago and other firms in South Bend, handling such clients as Kellogg’s, Tropicana, Alcoa, Owens Corning, the Big Ten Conference and Purdue University.
The Cincinnati native, who joined SMC in 2016 from WNDU-TV, holds a bachelor’s degree in telecommunications and advertising from Indiana University and a master’s degree in strategic business administration from Davenport University.
O’Brien used breakfast cereals to reinforce P concepts and echoed a brainstorming exercise by enumerating a Bic pen’s many features. “You get 10 seconds max to get attention and make your case,” O’Brien said. “You have to cull down to a couple of relevant things why a potential customer should care about your product. You have to decide what lede will be the biggest news to position what you are selling.”
“The level of patience with virtual really impressed me,” ETS Director Maria Kulka said. “Things tend to move a little slower. You worked well together as teams, never got upset with each other and handled yourselves in a professional way.”
“We helped you identify strengths and weaknesses related to teamwork,” Debra Barrett, Senior Extension Educator, based in Berrien County but with statewide responsibilities, said. “You did an amazing job communicating and supporting one another.”