From “Wizard of Menlo Park” Thomas Edison to more recent business creators such as Def Jam Re-cordings co-founder and former Saddle River resident Russell Simmons, New Jerseyans have set the bar in entrepreneurship.
Now, some Garden State colleges are trying to bottle that kind of magic and teach it, and Kayvon Jahanbakhsh and business partner Mike Lombardo are proof the approach can work. Jahanbakhsh, a marketing major who will graduate from Rowan University in Glassboro next May, and Lombardo, who just graduated from the institution with a degree in finance, soon will launch Topos Teas, a cold-brewed, craft-tea business they developed.
The entrepreneurship classes they took at Rowan’s Rohrer College of Business offered valuable insight, Jahanbakhsh said.
“The entrepreneurship classes gave us real-time feedback, so we could constantly revisit and re-tweak our assumptions and concepts,” he said. “We benefitted from speaking with a wide variety of seasoned experts including CPAs, financial analysts, marketing and other experienced professionals and entrepreneurs.”
The duo, who have been best friends for years, almost accidentally stumbled on the idea of setting up a small-batch, custom-brewed tea company.
“I had enjoyed cold-brewing my own South African Green Rooibos tea,” Jahanbakhsh said. “Mike’s always been a heavy coffee drinker, but last year I gave him some of my tea and he loved it. We initially thought of just making a few small batches and sharing them with friends, but the overwhelming positive reception made us think about taking this to another level.”
Late last summer, they packed up more than 100 one-ounce containers of the tea and gave away samples at a street festival in Collingswood. “That was our proof-of-concept trial, and people loved it,” he recalled. “At that point, we thought about setting up a business, and in the fall of 2017 we signed up for some of Rowan’s entrepreneurship courses.”
The business partners initially funded the venture with their savings. Then they supplemented their funds with a few thousand dollars from the university, which fields venture capital, accelerator and other programs that can provide seed money on a case-by-case basis.
In true startup fashion, Jahanbakhsh and Lombardo are conserving capital by outsourcing the manufacturing and bottling processes to a Central Jersey-based company that’s also connecting them with potential distributors.
“We’ve already made connections with about 15 customers,” Jahanbakhsh said. “They’re about 15 small businesses, mainly in South Jersey, that will carry our product that fit into the lifestyle branding that we’re targeting, which includes small yoga studios, coffee shops, natural food stores and cafes that have a dedicated following. We thought that this is a good time to take on the risk of establishing a new business, when neither of us has many family or other obligations.”
In addition to individual entrepreneurship courses, Rowan University offers certificates and a Bachelor of Science in Entrepreneurship.
“We’ve got a very inclusive course structure,” said Eric Liguori, the William G. Rohrer Professorial Chair in Entrepreneurship and executive director of the institution’s Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship. “In addition to business majors, people taking entrepreneurship courses include students from computer science, arts, engineering and other disciplines.”
Liguori said many students majoring in art, for example, “want to know more about the gig economy. In the fall we’re holding an event on arts and entrepreneurship, where we’ll talk about the business of art, tools and marketing strategies, business models and how to structure their practice to deliver a recurring revenue stream.”
The idea isn’t necessarily to create an army of entrepreneurs, he said, but is “a kind of mindset approach that will enable them to create value in any direction.”
Added Liguori: “We try to teach them about understanding the business model, and how everything in that model is interconnected. They also interact with seasoned entrepreneurs and learn from their experiences.”
That’s the case for Melvin Sheppard, a Moorestown resident who will be starting his junior year in the fall. The 20-year old, who’s majoring in entrepreneurship, wants to develop unmanned ground and air vehicles for first responders.
“I’m really just in the design stage now,” Sheppard said. “I’m trying to connect with engineers. My goal is to be a kind of hub — I would provide the business and entrepreneurship background, while engineering and other specialists will do their job.”
Students at Fairleigh Dickinson University’s entrepreneurship programs “come from a variety of backgrounds, genders, ethnicity and ages,” said Ethne Swartz, a professor of Entrepreneurship at the Silberman College of Business.
“At the undergraduate level we find that classes are more popular with younger students who wish to work for themselves or want to enter the family business in the future,” Swartz said. “We also have a graduate program, and all our students there must take at least one entrepreneurship class. Some students want to work for themselves, and others are seeking to enter the entrepreneurial and startup community in New Jersey or elsewhere in the U.S. Most students discover what they truly want to do as they go through the program.”
She added that faculty in the program don’t necessarily have to be entrepreneurs themselves.
“But it is essential to have studied in the field,” Swartz said. “All faculty at Silberman College of Business, including those who teach in the entrepreneurship major and minor, have completed doctoral and master’s degrees in entrepreneurship or management.”
With more millennials embracing the concept of entrepreneurship, these kinds of courses are gaining traction at universities, said Dennis Bone, director of Montclair State University’s Feliciano Center for Entrepreneurship.
“Some students, including adults who are coming back to school, want to gauge their potential as an entrepreneur — a fair percentage want to start their own company — but the skills of innovation and teamwork they learn here will assist them in just about any kind of setting,” Bone said.
Kristen Martinelli, a 23-year-old Pompton Lakes resident who graduated in May 2017 as an English major with the university’s Entrepreneurial Certificate, said the coursework was valuable.
“I am currently the marketing coordinator at Futurestay,” Martinelli said, referring to a New Brunswick-based company that develops vacation rental management software. “Through the Entrepreneurial Certificate courses, I learned about financials, how to make great pitch decks and the ins and outs of a successful business.”
She’s leveraged that knowledge to help launch her own freelance venture, providing social media management, content creation and business consulting.
“The entrepreneurship courses teach you to change your mindset,” Martinelli said. “Not only with trying to innovative, but you learn to take calculated risks, to be willing to fail and to encourage or develop resiliency within yourself."