Gannon University’s assistant professor of entrepreneurship, Kurt Hersch, had stumbled across a TV show featuring pop-up restaurants when he decided to take his business policy capstone course to a new level in fall 2017.
Every semester since, his senior business students have taken on the challenge of creating their own pop-up business that must be started, operated and closed within a two-week timeframe. It’s a challenge of putting textbook knowledge into real-world practice, Hersch said.
“The idea is to take all the siloed topics we talk about in classes – microeconomics, macroeconomics, accounting, finances, etc. – and put it all together in a very holistic, practical way,” Hersch said.
As part of the capstone project, teams of students must pitch their business proposals to entrepreneurial course students, who act as venture capitalists. It’s a bit like ABC’s iconic business reality TV show, “Shark Tank,” Hersch said.
This semester, a team of students including Cora Burek, Alhijazi Abdullah, Laurel Prokopchak, Ashley Drayer and Terrel Johnson pitched their business concept, Pretty Pup Bandanas, which would sell dog bandanas to canine lovers.
“The need was that dog owners want to show off their dog’s unique personalities while keeping them warm in the winter and providing them with protection from the sun in the summer,” Burek said.
Students host an Advising Day Eve Pong Tournament to benefit Special Olympics in 2021.
Margo Loutzenheiser, a senior marketing major and student venture capitalist, decided to invest in the business after evaluating the team’s presentation that covered topics like business need, target market, value proposition and marketing strategies.
Loutzenheiser invested $50 into the company in exchange for 17.5% ownership after a two-week negotiation period against other venture capitalists. The project wasn’t without some risk to her too, though.
“We’re graded on things like our return on investment and return on assets,” Loutzenheiser said. “Basically, we look at what was invested and what the team did with my money and if they were successful in returning on those assets.”
Pretty Pup Bandanas launched in late March, selling bandanas in a two-week timeframe from a table in Gannon’s Center for Business Ingenuity.
“One of the biggest lessons I have taken away from this experience is that creating a business is not easy – even a pop-up business. It’s an eye-opener for people who want to start real businesses and all the time and effort it takes,” Burek said.
Their proceeds will benefit Erie’s Anna Shelter. “We chose this shelter because it is a no-kill shelter,” Burek said.
Mental Health Matters sold custom-designed t-shirts, mugs and other merchandise in 2021 to benefit mental health nonprofits.
Other pop-up businesses this semester included Cards for Cancer, which provided a course for local community members on making creative greeting cards with proceeds benefiting the Hillman Cancer Center in Erie. Others, like Grad Prints, designed and sold t-shirts to benefit St. Judes Hospital.
The course’s first pop-up businesses in Fall 2017 were supported by $500 in start-up funds from the university, said Hersch. Since that semester, students’ businesses have been successful enough for the project to be self-sustaining.
In fact, since Fall 2017 that initial $500 has led to the launch of 53 pop-up businesses, generating more than $50,000 in donations to local businesses and charities like the Erie YMCA, Erie City Mission, the Make-A-Wish Foundation, Special Olympics and more.
Gannon’s Counseling Center was on the receiving end of two pop-up business projects that raised nearly $3,700 to support mental health resources.
Participants learn to make creative greeting cards with Cards for Cancer.
The donations were used to purchase interactive workbooks to help students extend their therapy process outside of traditional sessions, said Jodi Giacomelli, Ph.D., director of Counseling Services. They were also used to invest in a computer-assisted program that helps individuals improve their physical and mental health.
“It’s so heartwarming that these students want to help their peers and care about their peers’ mental health enough to donate the money to this fund,” Giacomelli said. “It’s very important to us to use the money in ways that will directly impact students and their mental health.”
Ariana Raiford sells Grad Prints t-shirts to benefit St. Jude’s Hospital.
As for hitting the $50,000 in donations mark, “that’s humbling,” Hersch said. “It should seem impossible for students to continually inspire me, but they certainly do. When they reach the end of their project, and they’re talking about their business and raising $800, $1,000 or even $2,000 for charities, that’s inspiring.”
By Brianna Mariotti, content marketing strategist