Michael LaPerch has always had an entrepreneurial spirit. "I keep an idea book of things I want to do," he says. "It's in my personality, I guess."
LaPerch, 21, launched his next big idea last March at John Carroll University, where he is an English and communications major. He sold St. Patrick's Day T-shirts around campus — racking up $900 in profit from the 400 shirts he sold.
It was that endeavor that caught the eye of one of LaPerch's professors, who told him about the Entrepreneurship Education Consortium.
A collaborative effort between seven Northeast Ohio schools — John Carroll, Case Western Reserve University, Cleveland State University, Baldwin-Wallace College, Kent State University, Ashland University and the University of Akron — the program is designed to promote entrepreneurial skills among the area's future business leaders.
The idea to create a consortium first came about in 2005, when the leaders of John Carroll invited its sister schools to discuss best practices. The following year, Kent State hosted a similar meeting and, from there, the consortium was born.
The Entrepreneurial Education Consortium responds to student demand. "There's a study that's been done that shows approximately 70 percent of current college freshmen expect to own a business or start one," says Mark Hauserman, director of the Muldoon Center for Entrepreneurship at John Carroll. "Markets respond to what students request. Entrepreneurship education has exploded all over the world. The field is expanding rapidly because that's what kids want."
Each year, participants — five from each school — come together for one week of intensive workshops and lectures, while also working in groups to develop a business model for an idea. The program is free, thanks to a grant from the Burton D. Morgan Foundation in Hudson.
"We're changing the way students think and inciting them about the way they think about doing business," says Phillip Bessler, associate professor of business at Baldwin-Wallace College in Berea. "[The students] are going to be the basis for emerging businesses."
Last year, John Carroll hosted a pilot program for its students. The winners developed a security device for students — a panic button of sorts that would inform campus security of their exact location if they were in trouble.
"The whole idea behind this is to, long-term, get new businesses up and running in Northeast Ohio," says John Soper, John Carroll's Kahl Chair in Entrepreneurship. "We don't expect it to happen next week, but down the road, that's what our objective is."
The first consortium, known as Immersion Week, came together last August at Cleveland State University. Students bunked together at the Comfort Inn adjacent to the campus. LaPerch decided to attend. "It was great," he says. "It was a first-year program run like a 10-year program. The quality of the guests and the things we did was just right. It touched on the right amount of everything."
The week encompassed everything from opportunity recognition to developing a marketing plan to financial management. "[It included] all stages of entrepreneurship to bring a venture to fruition," says Soper. "Students were also given an assignment. We asked them on Sunday afternoon to get together and come up with a business concept. Then on Friday, they made presentations to a panel of eight judges."
The winning group received a $1,000 prize. The Case Western team won with its idea for bringing fresh produce to area restaurants. The Kent State team won an honorable mention with its business idea, centered on selling furniture to college students, then buying it back at the end of the school year.
LaPerch particularly enjoyed the group dynamics of coming up with an idea. "There's a lot I learned," he says. "One of my struggles is I'm not good in groups. I learned that if my idea was shot down, it's for the betterment of the group. You just [have to] keep an open mind."
LaPerch also enjoyed the variety of speakers. In fact, their success stories inspired him to pursue some of his own ideas. "Some made millions, some just started and said, ‘Hey, maybe I'll be back at a regular job tomorrow,'" he says. "Sometimes they seem so untouchable."
A second mission behind Immersion Week was to provide a forum for students to form a lasting relationship with other students outside their own schools. Participants were given business cards to hand out to their fellow entrepreneurs.
"We wanted to create a network," says Hauserman. "The hope is they'll build a Rolodex. If students want to start a business, Jack [Soper] gives them a list." LaPerch has stayed in contact with many of the people he met at Immersion Week. A group of participants even created a Facebook page to keep in touch and share ideas.
"It changes the region," Bessler says of the ideas coming out of the students. "The outcome is to get Northeast Ohio college students to stay in Northeast Ohio, where they create wealth and jobs."
The consortium plans to launch a new, more intensive program in February. The competition will invite students from each of the seven schools to develop a business concept and hash it out. Students will have two to three months to work on their ideas.
"It will be a little more developed [this time] because of these ideas the kids have been working on," says Hauserman. "At Immersion Week, we asked them not to think about ideas ahead of time."
Students will compete at each of their schools, and three finalists will be selected from each school. Participants can have up to four members on a team. The finalists will then come together to compete. "We're hoping to have a substantial prize," says Soper. "We hope to be in a situation to help them develop a business plan."
The goal is for these future business professionals to continue to develop their ideas and create new businesses in Northeast Ohio. "We're trying to get them to stay here," says Hauserman. "We all have dreams. We're trying to get these kids excited about chasing those dreams."