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College curriculums catering to student-run businesses

Like many Americans, Aaron Lifford and Jessica Keckhaver dreamed of running their own business.

But they were still students, both sophomores at Indiana University at the time.

So last December they sought the advice of a mentor Donald F. Kuratko, executive director of IU’s Johnson Center for Entrepreneurship & Innovation and set out with $500 saved from part-time jobs, a little help from some friends and a lot of nervous energy.

“It was a learning experience, that’s for sure,” Lifford said. “We knew we wanted to start a business. So we sat down, put our heads together and figured out what we wanted to do.”

Less than a year later, the temporary staffing service the 20-year-olds co-founded Prodigy Staffing Solutions has more than 100 part-time employees, is compiling a growing list of clients and is now on track to earn $150,000 in projected revenues about triple what their business plan anticipated.

Though it’s difficult to track the exact number of student-run businesses, numbers of young entrepreneurs are on the rise, experts say, and interest among colleges and universities in teaching entrepreneurship also is increasing.

Worldwide, 3,000 colleges and universities teach entrepreneurship, Kuratko said, with at least 2,200 courses being offered at any given time. That compares with just a handful of schools that taught the subject two decades ago.

In a 2006 poll of 1,474 middle and high school students, Junior Achievement found nearly 71 percent said they would like to be self-employed someday an increase from 64 percent two years earlier.

“The interest is there, and it’s increasing,” he said. “Our younger generation is very much an E generation. They very much have an entrepreneurial spirit.”

Kuratko remembers meeting with Lifford and Keckhaver and being impressed with their enthusiasm and passion for running their own business.

When coaching prospective entrepreneurs, Kuratko said he looks for three qualities: a passion for what the person wants to do, experience in that industry and a clear understanding of the challenges of running a business.

When advising student entrepreneurs, he said, one additional concern arises: making sure they understand that their education is paramount and that running a business never should interfere with their studies.

Using your time wisely is key to going to college full time, running a business part time and still keeping your sanity, said Paige Darling Sylvester, 19, a student entrepreneur.

Sylvester, who is in her second year at Purdue University, began her business Darling Designs when she was 15. She estimates she has earned $8,000 selling her knitted scarves and other clothing items on two Web sites and and in two stores at the Fashion Mall, Keystone at the Crossing.

“It’s hard to juggle at the start of each semester,” she said. “It’s mostly time management, once you figure out how to do it.”

Technology, particularly the Internet, has made it easier for students to operate businesses, said Nathalie Duval-Couetil, associate director of the Burton D. Morgan Entrepreneurship Center at Purdue.

No longer do students need to lease building space and man the counter, Duval-Couetil said. “They can build a Web site and dabble in business, instead of doing it full time.”

The growth in entrepreneurship centers at Purdue, IU, Ball State University, the University of Notre Dame and other area schools also has helped to inspire student entrepreneurs with course offerings and access to educators many of whom have run their own businesses.

To provide “real world” experience, schools offer “elevator pitch” contests, in which students have a short time to pitch their business ideas to experts, and business plan competitions, which pit their business plans against those of other students.

The Indiana Economic Development Corp. even offered an Entrepreneur Bootcamp last March, in which more than 400 undergraduate and graduate students signed up for roundtable discussions with business experts and a chance to pitch their ideas to entrepreneurs and venture capitalists.

The response was so positive, said Bruce Kidd, the IEDC’s director of entrepreneurship, that the agency plans another boot camp next spring in Indianapolis and is organizing its first Collegiate Venture Idol “elevator pitch” competition Nov. 8 at the Indiana Convention Center.

However, no amount of competitions or classroom learning can make up for actual experience running a business.

Since they began training workers in wait service, bartending and other skills in donated space at a family friend’s restaurant in Terre Haute last spring, Lifford and Keckhaver have moved Prodigy Staffing Solutions to Indianapolis. They have had to hire someone to staff their local office to help interview prospective applicants and schedule appointments with clients, including the Ritz Charles in Carmel and the Brickyard Crossing Golf Resort & Inn.

“The business has really taken off since we first started,” Lifford said one recent weekend, while fielding business-related calls. And all that from an initial investment of $500.

– Associated Press

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