Incubator program raises up future entrepreneurs

Graduate communications student Hannah Leigh Thompson developed the idea of creating a baby clothing line called Llamas and Lullabies last spring while working on a graphic design project where she had to create and brand a store. Now, as a member of Liberty’s Spark! Incubator program, that simple idea is closer to fruition.

Liberty’s Spark! Incubator is an eight-week entrepreneurship training program that takes students through the major stages of launching a new business. Free and open to students of any major, the program equips aspiring entrepreneurs with tools for success. 

Students accepted into the program work one-on-one with an assigned mentor to gain professional insight, expound upon their ideas and formulate a successful business plan.

Hannah Leigh Thompson gains entrepreneurship knowledge from the Incubator program. | Allison Heise

“Entrepreneurship is all about learning and failing and adapting your business,” Thompson said. “Being able to be mentored by someone who has gone through that process, (who) is encouraging you, and really investing their time with you when they are not being paid or gaining anything from it has just been really awesome.” 

Thompson’s line of baby clothing is made from llama fur, which is hypoallergenic. She said working with her mentor, fashion and lifestyle blogger and the owner of Soul Sister’s Boutique, Sarah Krycinski, has been a tremendous help in developing business strategies for the line. In the past, Krycinski was No. 3 in sales in the world for Mary Kay. 

“Being able to be mentored by a woman who is specifically in my target market has been very amazing just because she is so wise, and she knows what it looks like to be shot down and to be successful,” Thompson said. 

Assistant Direction of the Center for Entrepreneurship Alex Barker | Allison Heise

After completing the eight-week program, students then become eligible to participate in Spark! Tank, a competition based off of the hit TV show “Shark Tank,” in which entrepreneurs who have gone through Liberty’s Spark! Incubator program present their ideas to the panel of sharks, or business tycoons. 

At Spark! Tank, students have three to five minutes to pitch their business ideas to a panel of experts for the chance to receive prize money. 

Vietnamese student Chi Maii was a winner at last year’s Spark! Tank competition, winning a $1,000 check for her idea. 

Bob Miller with Chi Maii. | Photo provided

Bob Miller, a local mentor, founder of Servant One, and co-owner of a local flower shop, Bloom by Doyle’s, worked alongside Maii. She came to Miller with the idea of creating a service for those wanting  to improve
their English. 

“She found out from her own personal experience that the placement of the tongue would help improve the enunciation for people who had English as a second language,” Miller said. “That was really unique — I had never heard that before.”

Miller said working with students such as Maii has not only been a teaching experience, but also a learning experience for him. 

 “It causes me to think a whole lot more, to read a whole lot more, to listen a ton and to appreciate the fact that God is putting ideas and dreams into the hearts of people no matter what age they are,” Miller said in regard to mentoring with the program for almost two years. 

As a local mentor, Miller comes to campus or opens his schedule a couple times each week for students who want to meet off campus, most commonly at local coffeeshops. During meetings, Miller listens to students’ ideas and guides them through some different thoughts.

Another local professional, Jack Edma, the executive producer of Cheers Lynchburg and the owner of new local restaurant, Rendez-Vous, is in his first year of being a mentor with the program. Edma started off his entrepreneurship journey with his brown bag lunch business when he was just in elementary school back in Haiti. He would charge his customers $5 for a bag stuffed with a sandwich, candy and a juice box. 

“I didn’t get a chance to benefit from the incubator program,” Edma said. “I didn’t get to have that in my early stage of my entrepreneurial career. I see how important it is now to really share with the students how important it is to help steer them and advise them.”

Former vice president of Under Armour, judge from last year’s Spark! Tank competition and Liberty dad Edward Giard is a mentor for the program who is out of the area. Giard, who currently lives in Maryland, primarily works with students over the phone or through video conferencing platforms. 

Giard has also worked with students at other universities, mostly who pursue consumer products like footwear, baseball bats and snowboards. Having been retired for six years, Giard said that working with young entrepreneurs at different age levels has reignited his desires to get involved.

Edward Giard | Photo provided

“I think mentors benefit as well as students because you’re going on a journey together, and I don’t think one individual is delivering all the answers and the other is (doing all the) benefiting,” Giard said. “I think both individuals involved in the journey are going to come out better off on the other end.” 

Interested in applying for the Spark! Incubator program and working alongside a professional mentor? Fill out an application on Liberty’s website under the Center for Entrepreneurship. 

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