Young Leaders and Entrepreneurs

College kids may have gotten a bad rap recently, in the wake of campus protests and demands for things like safe spaces and trigger warnings. Heck, the whole Millennial generation has been on the receiving end of some pretty negative news articles and opinion pieces lately, with young people called everything from “overly sensitive” to “spoiled.”

But in southern Minnesota, there are some pretty great young people doing some pretty great things—including in the business world.

In late November, the Minnesota State University, Mankato College of Business celebrated “Global Entrepreneurship” week. Throughout the week, several events were hosted, from a Women in Entrepreneurship brunch to a fashion show featuring a student-created business.

I had the chance to attend two of these events, and I found it both exciting and inspiring to see what MSU students are doing and creating in the world of business—even before they earn a degree.

The first event I attended was the Big Ideas Challenge 2016 Kick-Off at Mankato Brewery. The Big Ideas Challenge was launched in 2014, with student teams competing to win $10,000 in startup money for a business idea. The money came from MSU alumnus Craig Lloyd, who repeated his donation for this year’s competition as well.

“It’s our ‘Shark Tank’ at the university,” explained COB Dean Brenda Flannery at the brewery event. “The first time, we weren’t sure what to expect, but the students involved really exceeded our expectations.”

Participating students had to create a business plan, submit a video pitch and appear before a panel of judges to present their business idea. They didn’t necessarily have to be business majors, either; in fact, last year’s winners were two nursing students, Katie McDonald and Megan Chase. The two women created Mankato Pediatric Respite, which offers respite care for families with medically fragile children. McDonald and Chase are still running the company today, even though they’ve since graduated and found nursing jobs in the Twin Cities.

While McDonald and Chase took home the grand prize, several other competitors still moved forward with their own business plans, which included a company to help international students enroll in high-quality American universities and a same-day delivery service utilizing quadricopters.

April Femrite, an Entrepreneurship and Innovation Fellow with the COB, encouraged students to apply, stressing that they didn’t need to have a multi-million dollar business empire planned out.

“A big idea means starting anything that is new, innovative and valuable that serves an unmet need,” she said.

That idea carried into the Women in Entrepreneurship brunch the next day, where Kylen Feltes, a 2015 MSU graduate, spoke about becoming an entrepreneur at a young age.

Feltes is the founder and CEO of Dream Closet, which collects gently used clothes and hosts free “shopping” days throughout the year. She began the business while at MSU and continues to run it today. At the brunch, she spoke candidly about how intimidating it can be to take a risk on an idea, and how much she values failures as learning experiences.

I had a chance to catch up with Feltes in December to learn more about her story—and it’s pretty impressive.

Feltes told me her business sprang out of an idea she had while trying on clothes in her dorm room. After realizing that she didn’t wear many of the clothes, she gathered them together to donate to the YWCA. When that didn’t work out, Feltes decided to collect more clothes and host her own event where people could come take whatever they needed.

“That’s how entrepreneurs think,” she explained. “They see a need, and they think about ways to fill it.”

That first event, held in December 2013, included 17 tables and two hanging racks full of clothes—which were all gone within half an hour. Since then, the business has only gotten bigger and better. Feltes handed off the MSU Dream Closet to her leadership team when she graduated, though she’s still the business’s executive director. Her plan now is to take the idea to different campuses, licensing the Dream Closet model and finding corporate sponsorships along the way. That’s pretty darn impressive for someone who’s not even a year out of college.

There were many other events throughout the week, too many for me to attend, but I feel like I at least got a taste of what the College of Business is offering its students—and I am thoroughly impressed. These kids are younger than I am, yet some of them are already running businesses, dealing with payroll, figuring out insurance and so much more. And the College of Business is there for them every step of the way, providing support, steering them to resources like the Small Business Development Center and helping turn brilliant ideas into reality.

I also had a chance in the past few months to become better acquainted with groups of young professionals across our region, interviewing members of the New Ulm, Greater Mankato Growth and Sleepy Eye Young Professionals. These groups offer young people the chance to create professional networks, build their skill sets and become more involved in their communities. Events include everything from mentorship lunches to business tours to specialized speakers. That’s great for the members—but it’s also great for the southern Minneosta region as a whole. As cities and states struggle to retain workers—especially young workers—groups like the Young Professionals offer skilled young workers incentives to set down roots in their communities.

Just take a look at some of their members’ comments:

“It’s a great way to make those connections and be involved in something other than just going to work every day.” (Kayla Ruch, New Ulm HYPE.)

“As young professionals, we’re really working together to build up our community and the organizations we belong to.” (Mikayla Mage, Sleepy Eye Young Professionals.)

“I probably would not have expanded my network as much as what I did without being in YP for seven years. I can’t say enough good things about the program.” (Nathan Hanel, GMG Young Professionals.)

When it comes to these groups, many businesses fund their employees’ memberships and offer them time off to attend events. I think that’s an excellent idea. It may be a couple hundred dollars a year, but the benefits those businesses receive, such as employees’ growing leadership abilities and strengthened loyalty to their company, are priceless. Not only that, the entire region sees economic development. Anything business owners can do to enhance their employees’ professional and personal lives is well worth the investment.

We need young leaders and entrepreneurs, and I’m convinced that southern Minnesota’s supply won’t dry up any time soon.

Grace Webb

A former Editor of Connect Business Magazine