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Smith Entrepreneurs See Success Ahead

By Jan McCoy Ebbets

Budding entrepreneur Anna Miller '10 has plenty of ideas for starting her own business. One of those involves farming, raising goats and producing handcrafted goat cheese, an idea she intends to develop more fully after college.

In the meantime, her business plan for Bella Goat Cheese earned her a $500 award in a regional entrepreneurship competition last spring. Miller, a psychology major with a studio art minor, was among a growing cadre of college students in western Massachusetts who were honored in 2009 by the Harold Grinspoon Charitable Foundation's Entrepreneurship Initiative for demonstrating "entrepreneurial spirit."

Like Miller, more and more college students are considering entrepreneurship, according to national studies. Rather than trying to make difficult career choices in volatile economic times, many are designing their own jobs or start-up companies.

Like many Smith students, senior Anna Miller is blessed with ingenuity and a flair for entrepreneurship. Currently, she is trying to build a business that capitalizes on her passion for nature photography. Photo by Judith Roberge

Among women, entrepreneurship has grown at a fast pace. Between 1997 and 2006, the number of majority women-owned businesses increased 42 percent, according to the Center for Women's Business Research.

At Smith, those with entrepreneurial ambitions have a starting point with the Women and Financial Independence Program (WFI). There, René Heavlow, assistant director of the program, and Susannah Howe, director of the design clinic and lecturer in the Picker Engineering Program, are the go-to people for support and guidance on such things as fine-tuning business ideas, searching out funding, writing a business plan or executive summary and connecting with the right resources.

They not only mentor but also run a lunchtime lecture series for students each semester. The E* Initiatives offer information sessions and bring guest speakers to campus. "We're reaching a lot of students this way who are most interested and engaged in entrepreneurship," says Heavlow.

Smith student participation in events and competitions sponsored by the Springfield, Massachusetts-based Grinspoon Foundation is also a reflection of Heavlow's and Howe's mentoring.

This November, 12 Smith women were some of the 500 attendees—90 percent of them college students—who attended the fifth annual Grinspoon, Garvey & Young Entrepreneurship Conference: The Art of the Start. The event brought together students and faculty from more than a dozen colleges and universities in the region to network and to learn about the business aspects of entrepreneurial ambition and the process of innovation.

The conference is a nice opportunity "for students to network in a supportive environment and make connections with other students and faculty advisers from area schools," notes Howe, who along with Heavlow accompanied the students to the daylong gathering. The Grinspoon Foundation subsidized the $125 per-student attendance fee.

Several Smith students who have launched successful entrepreneurial businesses made presentations at the conference, including Rachel Besserman GR '10, co-owner with Damon Blanchette, of Emmet's Essentials, an online retail company that offers private-label organic baby and body care products, and Katherine Rettew '11, founder of KTR2, a business producing handmade beaded jewelry. (Rettew is currently on a yearlong leave from Smith.)

It is no coincidence that they follow a trail already blazed by Smith students and alumnae who have designed and grown their own businesses, supported by WFI resources.

"Entrepreneurs are smart, creative, passionate problem-solvers," notes Howe. "And a lot of Smithies are smart, creative, passionate problem-solvers."

Women's colleges tend to attract a very competitive and driven student base, Heavlow says.

"And it's here at Smith, with its liberal arts education, that students can develop a strong confidence and broad breadth of knowledge that is put to good use in the entrepreneurial experience," Howe says.

Helping first-time entrepreneurs make connections to the right resources is a role Heavlow and Howe take seriously. Anna Miller turned to them as she devised an idea for Bella Goat Cheese.

Indeed, Bella Goat Cheese is the result of Miller's work on numerous New England farms over the years and her passion for self-sustainable agriculture, humane treatment of animals and environmental responsibility. "In about seven years, I will have my own farm in New England," she predicts.

But in the short term, she wants to build a business that reflects her growing passion for nature photography and documentary journalism, rooted in a 2009 summer internship as a photographer at a daily newspaper. She is preparing a proposal for the 2010 Grinspoon Entrepreneurship Initiative competition.

For the many students like Miller, who are considering entrepreneurial projects to come, what's next?

An elevator pitch competition will be held in April at an annual entrepreneurship banquet among participating area colleges that include American International, Hampshire, the University of Massachusetts and Smith.

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