A business lab? Student-run ventures learn how to operate profitably

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July 10, 2017

By Mike Killeen

Sign on doorIf you are a biology or chemistry student at the College of Saint Benedict and Saint John’s University, you spend a bit of time in a laboratory.

It turns out that global business leadership majors and Entrepreneur Scholars at CSB and SJU also have labs — but not the kind with Bunsen burners or microscopes.

A number of campus businesses are run by CSB and SJU students through the Donald McNeely Center for Entrepreneurship — including T-Spot, Clemens Perk, Johnnie Java and WeCar. Instead of mixing chemicals or dissecting a frog, these businesses strive to make a profit.

When they do, some contribute back. At the conclusion of the 2016-17 school year, T-Spot donated $8,000 back to the McNeely Center.

“This is the third year that T-Spot has made a profit and kicked a chunk of it back to the McNeely Center, and left the remainder in the checking account,” said Paul Marsnik, professor of global business leadership who co-teaches the practicum class for student run ventures (like T-Spot or Clemens Perk)  and club leadership teams (like Enactus).

The T-Spot had over $26,000 in sales for the 2016-17 academic year, according to Sierra Schmelz, the chief executive officer for T-Spot and a rising senior at CSB.

“After expenses, we were able to comfortably donate $8,000 to the McNeely Center, as well as leave our succession team with $8,000 to have a steady foundation to allocate toward equipment, inventory, marketing or wherever the management team sees fit,” Schmelz said.

“The ultimate goal every year is to obviously have more money than what you started with,” Schmelz said. “But even if a team is unable to bring profitability, they still achieved invaluable learning experiences throughout the journey, and that is ultimately what counts.”

So, how do you teach profitability?

“To me, it becomes what I call our on-campus business lab,” said Steve Schwarz, visiting assistant professor of global business leadership who co-teaches the practicum class with Marsnik.

“If you’re a biology student, you work in a lab. Here, you’re running a business on our campus, and you’re learning. What does it mean to discipline my friends? How do I motivate somebody who is my peer, which is very different than what you do if you are an intern somewhere, working for someone,” Schwarz said. “Now, you’re in charge. You have to look at (the) financials and you have to make decisions that are profitable.”

“I believe it is critical to take advantage of all of the amazing opportunities CSB/SJU has to offer, and the T-Spot is definitely one of the colleges’ hidden gems, especially when it comes to entrepreneurship,” Schmelz said. “I am a huge advocate for discovering passions and seeking opportunities that allow you to foster those desires.

“I had a drive for business, retail and entrepreneurship; the T-Spot encompassed all those passions and I was able to receive remarkable learning experiences while doing what I love,” she added.   

Second, the class (GBUS 394: Practicum) assists the students, with Marsnik and Schwarz acting as mentors.

The class allows Marsnik and Schwarz the chance to meet with students once every other week to offer guidance on such issues as running meetings, developing mission, vision and mantra, setting and tracking goals, understanding financials and succession planning.

“The students do the hard work of running the ventures and leading the clubs,” Marsnik said. “Rather than provide extensive lectures to the students on these topics, we tend to facilitate discussions among the students about what works and what doesn’t.”

TSpot LogoT-Spot specializes in promotional clothing for clubs and organizations. Founded in 2007 by Colin Dart ’08 and Nicole Nelson ’08, they realized the need for a campus screen-printer that could provide quality T-shirts and promotional apparel for the campus communities at Competitive prices.

The McNeely Center will use that money several different ways, said McNeely Center Director Margrette Newhouse. The primary goal is to provide funding for new initiatives and programming to expand the Center’s reach to students throughout the liberal arts curriculum in addition to supporting scholarships for students in the Center’s Entrepreneur Scholars program.

“Going forward, in what ways might we also bring students that may not be an Entrepreneur Scholar included in our bigger net?” she asked. “Beyond providing a fabulous experience for students leading the businesses, the contributions from businesses during the Entrepreneur Scholar program provides funding for us to do some additional things on campus – sponsoring co-curricular activities and adding an array of two-credit innovation and entrepreneurship courses.   

“Our overall budget is not that big, so it’s a big contribution we received – and very meaningful as it exhibits student leaders integration of Benedictine values including stewardship, respect for person, community living, moderation and dignity of work within their organizational practices,” Newhouse said.

 Schmelz said her management team – Maxwell Kuzara, Alec Dewitz, Nick Traxler and Alex Savre – “strived to have a trivial financial so we could give back to the organization that has given us so many resources to exceed. The McNeely Center and the T-Spot have a close, ever-growing relationship.

“The McNeely Center provides constant support, mentorship and resources to fuel students’ passions no matter their major, interests or aspirations,” Schmelz added. “The McNeely Center has been an incredibly special part of our teams’ college experience, and we are driven to work hard with the goal of being able to give back.”