Business students say seminar experience taught them to think bigger

November 11, 2016 | Jennifer McManamay
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These “Sweet & Strong” mugs have been selling like hotcakes.

Madi Mills has discovered that to run a successful business enterprise, sometimes you have to think outside the classroom.

The senior business major from Oakley, Calif., is the CEO of Professor Tom Loftus’ fall 2016 Business Seminar I. The seminar is designed to run like a corporation — complete with defined personnel roles, manufacturing timelines, accounting and the like — and Mills is the boss running it all. Her second-in-command is fellow business major Amanda Terry of Richmond, who is serving as the student executive, or SE.

As SE, Terry is also the HR manager, responsible for everyone’s timesheets and 360-degree performance evaluations. Each executive leads a team of students with assigned roles — marketer, event planner and accountant — tasked with working together to produce fundraisers to benefit a charity.

Therein lies one of Mills’ biggest challenges, she says. Because the class meets only once a week, much of the work occurs on their own time.

“Everyone needs to hold their group members accountable and find time in their already busy schedules to work on their events and products,” she explains. “I’m constantly trying to come up with ideas to help the groups coordinate and hold meetings differently. One class period, I made each group take a ten-minute walk to get out of the classroom and talk about what their next steps were as a team.”

For Mills, the class offers a business practicum credit (Business Practicum in Management II). She qualified to be CEO by taking Business Seminar I as an underclasswoman. Ordinarily she would have taken the Business Practicum in Management I as SE first, like Terry, but no other eligible students were available to lead the fall seminar.

Madi Mills ’17, as CEO of Sweet Briar’s Business Seminar I in fall 2016, leads the class discussion.

Madi Mills ’17, as CEO of Sweet Briar’s Business Seminar I in fall 2016, leads the class discussion.

On a warm early September day, the students waited in Benedict 209 while in another classroom, Mills and Terry interviewed their classmates one by one for each position within the company. With the appointments made, the whole class went right to the first order of business: selecting a charity. After talking through numerous nominations, they agreed on Miller Home for Girls in Lynchburg. No time is wasted, because there isn’t any to spare.

Fast-forward a couple of months, and the teams have several fundraisers and lots of valuable experience to look back on. Among the lessons learned, says marketer Jennifer Johnson of Tallahassee, Fla., is don’t be afraid to “think big — then think bigger.” Her team is selling glass coffee mugs etched with the College logo and “Sweet & Strong” for one fundraiser.

“Our problem so far has been that we didn’t anticipate success, which could’ve led to our demise, but we recovered quickly and are more excited than ever!” Johnson says.

Teammate Sydney Hodge, a senior from Woodbridge, elaborated on the obstacles they’re still working to overcome — such as products arriving broken or defective and selling out of them too quickly. They scrambled to order more and implement a shipping system to accommodate off-campus demand.

“We’ve come across lots of challenges,” Hodge says, including getting ahead of customer complaints due to the mugs’ quality. “We managed to get more mugs sent to us for free to make up for the damaged ones. We also negotiated with our supplier for our reorder and received a much lower price.”

Another surprise came when the second order arrived with the wrong design. Again, students leapt into action to fix the problem and get the product out to waiting customers.

As for shipping, Hodge says they’re likely to apply old-fashioned elbow grease and do the packing and shipping themselves, rather than hire ShopSweet, to save costs. Despite the tribulations, Hodge agrees with Johnson about being fearless.

“You’re given the challenge of raising money, and also the complete freedom to do it basically however you want,” she says. “You’ll find yourself looking for someone to tell you what to do or how to do it, but it’s up to you to figure it out — which is why the class is so much fun and so valuable.”

The students are given the capital to create a product and sell it based on their business plan with estimates and projections, Hodge says.

“When you’re first starting out you’ll wonder, ‘how am I supposed to know how much money we’ll make,’ and the truth is, you don’t. But every business needs a starting point,” she says.

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Alexa Dahlin ’18 (from left), Jennifer Johnson ’17 and Sydney Hodge ’17 research the charity they want to fundraise for as part of Sweet Briar’s Business Seminar I.

Her advice to the next batch of Business Sem I students?

“Try to plan out all worst-case and best-case scenarios, and don’t assume anything — plan for everything. We were fortunate enough to be completely blindsided by our success, and it gave us the motivation to set even larger goals.”

For Loftus, watching his students struggle through adversity makes the seminar one of the most challenging and rewarding courses to teach.

“While I have ultimate responsibility for the class, I try to stick to my role as chairman of the board as much as possible,” he says. “By giving the students the freedom to either succeed or fail, they are learning real-life lessons about decision-making, accepting responsibility and being a productive member of a team.

“The experience helps build the self-confidence that is one of the hallmarks of a Sweet Briar graduate.”

Mills can attest to that, but “helps” seems to be the operative word. She has the benefit of hindsight, having been through the seminar as a rank-and-file employee. She was the accountant — a job she didn’t ask for, she says.

“I’m pretty happy with the results [now],” Mills says. “It gave me a better understanding of that side of the business world, and now I enjoy being the treasurer of other clubs and keeping budgets for different things.”

Every semester is different, though, so Mills says it’s not so much her experience in Business Seminar I that prepared her to be CEO as it is the whole of her education.

“I don’t think anyone is prepared to be CEO,” she says. “Each CEO has a different spectrum of things to deal with, but I’m fortunate that the classes I’ve taken at Sweet Briar have given me the confidence I needed to tackle this semester.”

There is one thing she learned the first time she took the seminar — that a CEO must be there for her people.

“I have my own project over the semester, but I made sure that I didn’t get myself into something too big,” Mills said. “I need to be able to share my time with both groups, whether they need to have a spur-of-the-moment meeting, or need another body to sell their products at lunch.”

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