Student Life

Sparking Innovation

February 21, 2018

Entrepreneur program turns students’ ideas into reality

From creating an app to rate the credibility of news stories, to starting a food truck that serves gourmet doughnuts, students are using a one-on-one professional mentorship program to learn their way around the business world and bring their ideas to life.

The Spark! Incubator, an eight-week extracurricular program offered through Liberty’s Entrepreneur’s Center, is open to students of any major. Burgeoning student entrepreneurs meet regularly with a mentor who is either a faculty member or a local professional to formulate a business plan, talk with potential customers, and try to determine if their business plan is viable.

“You refine, refine, refine until you get to the point of determining whether you have a company or product or not,” said Jonathan Whitt, Liberty’s vice president of special projects and business engagement. “If you don’t, it’s OK, but at least you didn’t waste six months of your life. It’s a real lean, quick way of trying to start up a company, and we walk them through that process.”

Students are also connected with other executives in their industries and experts on relevant topics, such as law or regulation.

Senior business administration major Abbi Daniels is a foodie who loves the personal side of business. She appreciates the story behind a successful enterprise and aims to become a small business owner by opening an artisan doughnut food truck called Dawn & Dusk.

“College students want the artisan experience,” she said. “We want high quality in little things. So, I was thinking: How could we bring that in the simplest of ways? We’ve already done that with coffee, why not with doughnuts?”

Through Spark!, Daniels said the program has helped her “fast track” her idea.

“Being able to talk about my thoughts, to rein them in and also bring them out and highlight things has been invaluable,” she said. “You don’t get that in a classroom.”

Attorney Corey Davis, left, and local businesswoman Cheryl Valentine served as judges. (Photo by Joel Isimeme)

The Spark! participants had an opportunity last semester to pitch their ideas to a panel of judges for a chance at a $1,000 prize to grow their business. The “Spark! Tank” pitch-off was modeled after the popular TV show “Shark Tank.” Judges were Scott Hicks, Liberty’s vice provost for graduate education; Corey Davis, attorney at Woods Rogers Edmunds & Williams; and Cheryl Valentine, director of sales and marketing at Consolidated Shoe Company.

In the competition, Daniels emphasized the relational angle of her business plan: “I’m not just selling doughnuts; I’m creating memories and developing relationships.”

It worked. She won the grand prize, which will allow her to renovate a truck she already owns. Judges were not only sold on her idea, but her branding as well — suggesting that she has the potential to franchise.

The judges were so impressed with Liberty’s entrepreneurs that they also awarded a runner-up prize — another $1,000 out of their own pockets — to senior human resource management major Gordon Heinrich, who is patenting a tool he believes will revolutionize the stone masonry industry. Heinrich himself is a mason and discovered a tool that helps reduce waste and, therefore, cut costs. His company, Lancaster Tool, is already working with manufacturers to get his product to market.

Other ideas presented were a produce- and flower-growing operation (read story), a startup to make drone technology cheaper and more readily available for use in missions and law enforcement, and two pitches for apps: one focused on simplifying property rental and another for rating news stories for their trustworthiness.

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