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Liberal Arts Entrepreneurs: Students learn how to launch new ventures

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By Jessica Sinn, College of Liberal Arts
Published: April 12

It's not unusual to hear a liberal arts student say, "Wouldn't it be great if I could make money doing what I love?" But the logistics of launching a business - from starting a portfolio to developing a marketing plan - can make the very notion of embarking on a new venture seem downright intimidating.

Robert Vega

Robert Vega, assistant director of Liberal Arts Career Services and co-creator of "The Liberal Arts Entrepreneur."

To help liberal arts students turn their dreams into a reality, Kate Brooks, director of Liberal Arts Career Services, and Robert Vega, assistant director of Liberal Arts Career Services, created "The Liberal Arts Entrepreneur," an interactive three-hour course that helps students apply their liberal arts education and life experiences to their entrepreneurial interests.

As for the nuts and bolts of business, that's the easy part to teach, Brooks says. It's the passion, the enthusiasm and the creativity that can't be taught. Since liberal arts students already have those qualities, they're at the best position for starting a business, she says.

Kate Brooks

Kate Brooks, Liberal Arts Career Services Director and co-creator of the "Liberal Arts Entrepreneur" course

"My theory has always been that liberal arts students make the best entrepreneurs," Brooks says. They're already ahead of the game because they're open-minded, creative, flexible and have a passion for what they want to accomplish."

Through workshop activities, the students get a taste of what it's like to flesh out ideas with colleagues in the business world. To help them hone their networking skills, Brooks and Vega grouped their students with fellow classmates who are developing similar business models.

"We want them to realize that if they want to be an entrepreneur, they need to tap their community and build contacts," Vega says. "So we're showing them how to do that with their peers in a way that's not competitive."

At the end of the semester, students will be graded on their efforts, not the potential success of their business. Even if they decide their idea is not viable at the end of the course, students who make the most of the assignments and brainstorming sessions will leave with a better understanding of themselves and what they want out of life, Vega says.

"I hope they leave with the knowledge that they can launch a business, and that it's not out of their reach," Vega says. "We want to show them that they have everything they need to make it happen, they just have to put it together in the right way."

Following are examples of how four liberal arts entrepreneurs are turning their passions into successful enterprises.

A Recipe for the Perfect Business

A SugaPuff Confections gourmet marshmallow

A SugaPuff Confections gourmet marshmallow

Just the word "marshmallow" conjures images of melting Jet-Puffs on a skewer and steaming mugs of hot cocoa. But now these sugary confections come in every flavor - coconut cream pie, cookies and cream, even tropical pineapple - and offer so much more than a cozy campfire treat. Henry Hedges, a history senior, is helping to lead the puffy revolution.

Hedge's interest in the gourmet food industry began when his sister, Ruthie Hedges, who graduated from The University of Texas at Austin with an English degree in 2008, began making her own specialty marshmallows for friends and family. She discovered a talent for crafting gourmet marshmallows while experimenting with pie toppings. Her interest soon turned into a passion as she created her own recipes for many new flavors and manifestations of the marshmallow.

As fate would have it, Henry received an email announcing the "Liberal Arts Entrepreneur" course the day after his sister declared her mission to start her own marshmallow business called SugaPuff Confections.

"This class couldn't have come at a better time," he says. "When I told her about the class, she was all for it.  It's like it was meant to be."

During the first two weeks of class, Hedges took personality tests and brainstormed marketing ideas with his fellow classmates. Through the various exercises, he pinpointed his strengths and discovered how to make the most out of his practical business skills.

"This class gave me a better idea of what I should focus on in this business partnership," Hedges says. "I found that I have a knack for planning, creativity and ingenuity, so it makes sense for me to take over the branding and marketing side of this business."

Henry Hedges, history senior and co-creator of SugaPuff Confections

Henry Hedges, history senior and co-creator of SugaPuff Confections

To get their start in Austin's eclectic food industry, the duo plans to sell their epicurean delights, on campus, at local farmers markets and specialty food stores. The marshmallows will also be available for customers throughout the country on their website.

And the flavors keep on coming. In addition to vanilla and chocolate, they are creating a colorful kaleidoscope of gooey creations - from peanut butter and jelly, to graham cracker-speckled s'mores, to tangy key lime pie.

"Our marshmallows are delicious and the versatility in the ingredients really make them unique," Hedges says. "We are coming up with all sorts of new ideas to make a marshmallow so much more than just a marshmallow."

Although Hedges is still developing his business plan and marketing strategies, he already has a clear vision for promoting his brand.

"My sister is really the personality behind the business, so I really want to reflect not just the Austin vibe, but also her energy and excitement about our products," says Hedges.

With their combined talents, Hedges believes their partnership is the perfect recipe for sweet entrepreneurial success.


Developing a Fairer Trade


Arthi Rabbane, economics and math junior, is embarking on an online fair trade venture

Arthi Rabbane, economics and math junior, is embarking on an online fair trade venture.

Those who spend just a little bit more money on goods labeled "fair trade," most likely do so to support farmers and laborers in developing countries. From a consumer's perspective, the higher prices are balanced out by knowing their money is going toward impoverished families, rather than a corporate giant.

Known as socially conscious enterprises, these businesses provide farmers and other producers a safe working environment, a right to collective bargaining and fair wages for their backbreaking work. But Arthi Rabbane, an economics and math junior, wants to make those wages much more than just "fair."

With the online free trade revolution, more producers in developing countries are able to sell their goods to consumers all over the world. The problem with this model, Rabbane says, is that a good portion of their profits goes toward service providers for online storefronts. To help boost their profit margins, she plans to strip out those costly middleman fees.

Similar to eBay, Rabbane's virtual marketplace will give clients all the tools they need for building, branding and customizing their storefronts. Rather than just posting a list of items, the clients will have the opportunity to tell their story and share details about their products.

"A lot of these farmers and handicraft artisans don't have marketing abilities, so I want to provide resources that can help them brand their storefronts and make connections with target consumers," Rabbane says. "Making that connection is one of the most crucial components of running a successful business."

With these resources, Rabbane says her clients will have the opportunity to develop the skills to compete in the global marketplace.

"I've found the greatest, most successful nonprofits are the ones that are self-sustaining," Rabbane says. "Unlike other fair trade retailers, this business acts as a service that helps others become more independent."

The biggest challenge, she says, is learning how to create a website with multiple storefronts. But with some help from her fellow classmates, who are also aspiring to build online businesses, the challenge seems much less daunting.

"It really helps that I'm in a group with some other students who are facing the same challenges and can help each other out throughout the semester," Rabbane says. "The thought of creating a business plan and launching a website is a lot less overwhelming now that I'm in a class that helps me think through each step throughout an entire semester."


Labor of Love


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Summer Morgan, women's and gender studies senior, aspires to launch her own midwifery practice

Summer Morgan, a women's and gender studies senior, has always been fascinated with the miracle of birth. Ever since she was a young girl, she couldn't wait to become an obstetrician so she could be the first to welcome new babies into the world. 

But that dream fell flat when she watched a woman give birth for the very first time.

"I was shaking with excitement to see a baby be born," says Morgan, who was a pre-medical student at the time. "I wanted to hold the mother's hand and give her emotional support, but the doctors and nurses seemed so emotionally disconnected. It was really disheartening to see there was nothing magical or romantic about it."

When she noticed the expecting mothers were bringing their own labor coaches and doulas into the delivery room, she realized something was missing from standard patient care.

"I was convinced that there had to be a better way to give birth when I saw a lot of the women were bringing their own advocates," Morgan says. "Birth is a ritual and cultural act, but in a hospital, there's a lot of anxiety and fear."

That's when she realized she didn't have to become a doctor or nurse to help women deliver babies. Now a certified midwife, she aims to start her own practice after she graduates this fall. During her apprenticeship with a licensed midwife, she has helped several women naturally give birth in the comfort of their own home. From her experience, she's now more excited than ever to start her own practice.

"When I first started working with a midwife, I realized this was the best option for women to give birth," Morgan says. "I very much believe in doctors and modern medicine, but pregnancy and giving birth should not be treated like an illness."

From the initial interview to the delivery, midwives sustain long-lasting, intimate relationships with their clients. Their services include regular exams, counseling sessions, home visits, post-partum counseling and emergency medical assistance.

"Midwives care for the woman and her whole well-being," Morgan says. "Some women find themselves healing bad habits and resolving dietary problems after the birth. So in addition to assisting expecting mothers through their pregnancy, midwives are helping them become healthier and happier after their babies are born."

A strong believer in medical science, Morgan said she was initially skeptical of midwifery - or anything that has to do with alternative medicine. But when she started her apprenticeship, she realized that the stereotype of a midwife as some new-age woman dressed in long cotton skirts and Birkenstocks just didn't hold up.

"Back in the 60s, midwives lived in communes and were strongly associated with the hippie liberal culture," Morgan says. "But it's not like that anymore. Midwives are very educated and have backgrounds in medicine. By exposing women to this fact, I hope they can see that it's not quackery - and that they do have a choice in how they want to give birth."


Taking the World One Adventure at a Time

Zeal Desai, International Relati ons and Global Studies senior, is learning how to start her own travel agency offering all-inclusive package deals from India to South America

Zeal Desai, International Relati ons and Global Studies senior, is learning how to start her own travel agency offering all-inclusive package deals from India to South America

While preparing for her study abroad trip to Argentina, Zeal Desai, an International Relations and Global Studies senior, learned how to speak the language and rigorously studied South American culture. Yet, until she intermixed with the locals, she had no idea that most Argentineans had never met a traveler from India.

"They were very curious about my skin tone and strange accent," Desai says. "When I told them where I was from, they got very excited and said, ‘I've always wanted to go to India - it's so amazing! Is it true the cow is holy there? How is the Ganges? What is yoga like? What is life like out there?'"

To help connect the two cultures - which seem to be worlds apart - Desai decided to start a U.S.-based travel agency offering all-inclusive package deals from India to South America. Designed as a one-stop-shop for South America-bound travelers, the packages will include every essential detail from travel Visas to hotel accommodations.

"A travel service like this is very important for people in India because they can learn about a huge part of the world that they know little to nothing about," Desai says. "There's very little information that's readily available about South America. There are travel shows, but they mostly show countries in Europe and the Western world, not South America."

To help her clients prepare for their trip abroad, Desai will offer basic classes in language and culture. After her business takes off, she plans to create personalized theme tours offering custom-designed itineraries, hotel and transport bookings, all based on the travelers' interests, needs and budget.

"I want to cater to those who are looking for a unique South America trip that suits their interests," says Desai, who aspires to host her own travel show. "For example, nature lovers can focus on hiking or skiing in the Andes Mountains. Or history buffs could tour museums, historical sites and ancient ruins."

Considering the long distance between the two countries, the travel packages won't be cheap, Desai said. But with its rising middle class and growing population of young professionals, she believes India is an ideal place to market her travel agency.

"I know the tours are costly, but there are so many young, educated people in India who are really inquisitive about different cultures in the world, and are willing to travel to foreign countries to feed their intellectual curiosity."

From their study abroad experiences, many liberal arts students like Desai come back with a newfound passion for connecting with other cultures, Brooks says.  With their broad interests in global affairs and the humanities, they're better positioned to connect with clients and thrive in the global marketplace.

"A liberal arts degree is tremendously powerful when applied intelligently," Brooks says. "These students already have what it takes to run a successful business. My job is to help them understand their potential - and that they don't have to be a business major to launch a new enterprise."