Unions as a Space for Entrepreneurship

When it comes to entrepreneurial events like open houses, business showcases, business plan and pitch competitions, workshops, and speakers’ series, the college union is often involved. But as the campus living room intentionally provides networking opportunities, education, and space to its community, entrepreneurship within the union is also evident via student-run storefronts, university- and foundation-supported incubators and accelerators, and makerspaces that provide training and technology.

The concept of student-run businesses isn’t all that new: Students of Georgetown, now known as The Corp, started the grocery and to-go store Vital Vittles at Georgetown University in 1973, moving it to the Leavey Center in 1988. The Corp today is considered the largest entirely student-run nonprofit corporation in the world, with seven subsidiary companies, annual revenues over $5 million, and only undergraduate students working as employees or sitting on the company’s board of directors. 

The University of Chicago saw its first student-run coffee shop open in 1979, and there are now five spread out among the student center, two libraries, and two academic buildings. Designed to provide students with a space on campus to grow and develop professionally, the student-run coffee shop program emphasizes the individual, collaboration within a team, building an environment that nurtures hard work and creativity, and lastly, identifying and implementing change. 

“The program also provides the campus with five unique student centers, where student patrons can study, read, drink coffee, and feel a sense of belonging,” said Michael Constantino, campus business and operations manager for University of Chicago’s Center for Leadership and Involvement. “Students oversee the daily operations of each shop. Each location has student managers who are in charge of the hiring and training of their student staff. The managers create, update, and enforce policy and procedures; build schedules; oversee the menu; place orders for inventory; and manage the finances. Each location is seen as a small business in which students can learn the minutia of running their own business.” 

Constantino added that students are encouraged to explore introducing new products within the shops that can often propel more walk-in traffic. 

“This year, for example, one manager worked with a vendor to provide kombucha and mochi tea,” he said. “This manager, who was familiar with their location’s niche and demographics, correctly predicted these drinks would be popular among their customers. One student traveled overseas to learn more about coffee and shared what he learned. Alumni who once worked at our student-run shops or had an affinity for the shops even went on to open their own coffee shop in the Chicago area.” 

The depth and breadth of student entrepreneurial opportunity has expanded over time, and the union has been front and center in facilitating that evolution from campus-centric student-run businesses to opportunities for social entrepreneurship, alumni and community mentoring programs, and as a home for one-on-one and team business incubation and acceleration. Unions now host makerspaces, conduct competitions that lead to student-run storefronts, and act as service hubs where students can literally walk in off the street with an idea and receive development support. 

“Our concept came originally from our college of business and our school of entrepreneurship,” said David Lemon, director of the Anderson Student Center at the University of St. Thomas, of that center’s makerspace, called create [space]. “They wanted to increase the number of students thinking about entrepreneurship and innovation, and when student affairs got involved we realized we needed to rethink the whole environment around it.” 

By “around it,” Lemon didn’t just mean tearing down walls, pulling up carpet, mounting whiteboards, and adding tech like 3-D printers and laser cutters. Student affairs professionals active with entrepreneurship opportunities and entrepreneurship professionals working with student centers all agree that any student, and particularly not just a business student, can become the next successful entrepreneur or innovator. 

That’s a timely recognition as more and more research is showing that Generation Z, of which the oldest members are now around 20, is not only the most diverse, but possibly the most entrepreneurial in history. A Northeastern University study on higher education and its relationship to the global economy found that 63% of respondents ages 16 to 19 wanted to learn about entrepreneurship in college. Another 72% said colleges should allow students to design their own coursework, and 42% said they expected to work for themselves sometime in the future. That’s four times higher than the number of self-employed Americans, and the statistic is higher for African-American and Hispanic populations. Additionally, according to the most recent Gallup Student Poll, more than 45% of youth in grades 5–12 reported they were currently learning how to start and run a business, while more than 30% said they already own a business.   

At Babson College, 18-year-old David Silva from Brooklyn, N.Y., has just completed the year-long Foundations of Management and Entrepreneurship course that is required for all incoming first-year students. Students craft their own unique ideas during the first semester, then the entire class chooses three or four standout concepts that are developed the remainder of the year. The university pays for products, manufacturing costs, and marketing, and students sell the product or service at designated times at the Reynolds Campus Center and other locations on campus. In the end, Babson owns the product, but students who want to continue down an entrepreneurial track after their first year can receive professional assistance to secure funding to buy the product back at cost or pursue funding for other ideas. 

“The class really brings out the best in a lot of students,” Silva said. “It sets you up for working in a team, provides experiences in setting goals and creating opportunities, and it teaches you how to showcase a product.” 

Many of the products are geared toward meeting a human need and those social entrepreneurship opportunities lead to partnerships with social service agencies in the Babson Park, Massachusetts, region. Since 1999, the Foundations of Management and Entrepreneurship program has donated more than $470,000 to local charities. 

Reynolds Campus Center at Babson has a history of supporting student entrepreneurship, one of the most successful examples being the original location for Ball and Buck, a high-end men’s sporting attire company founded by then-Babson student Mark Bollman IV. Now with a flagship store on the elite Boston shopping strip of Newbury Street and a successful online division, Ball and Buck started by renting a space in Reynolds Campus Center for $150 a semester. 

“I remember I had to get after him for painting the walls and putting in hardwood floors without permission, but he had a ‘look’ he was going for,” recalled Jennifer Zamora, director of student programs at the University of Texas–Austin, who at the time was director of student activities and leadership at Babson. When Bollman was a student, Reynolds Campus Center offered not only a storefront, but vendor carts and a chamber of commerce service to support student entrepreneurship. 

Earlier this year at the University of Missouri’s MU Student Center, the Missouri Student Unions Entrepreneurial Program took a leap forward with an expansion of its innovation space designed to benefit its three student-owned retail spaces and other students. The new 700-square-foot collaboration space is now part of its “business block” where student-run companies make pitches, present business plans, and compete for one-year leases at the three retail spaces. 

“Each of our three retail spaces have about 300 square feet, but there was a need for back-of-the-house space to work out of for generating ideas, making presentations to vendors, mentors and manufacturers, and to do light manufacturing and construction,” said Heath Immel, associate director of Missouri Student Unions. “The space was designed by our students, and we had a former student who is a first-year professional interior designer formalize it.” 

This year, the MU Student Center will house a new cosmetics store for women of color called Sweet Tea, a food store called Lost in the Sauce that will feature sauces from around the world, and a gourmet popcorn store called What’s Poppin’. Alumni businesses have included a company designed to facilitate collaboration for other student entrepreneurs called The Bridge; another health and beauty aids store for women of color called Honey Bee Cosmetics; a store featuring handmade clothing, hats, and jewelry called Land to Luna; a thrift store called Threadbare that sold gender-neutral clothing; and Stuff in a Box, which allowed families and friends to send care packages to students with the click of a button. 

The Missouri Student Unions Entre-preneurial Program began in 2010 and since then Immel has been contacted by at least 10 other unions about the program, and he’s given presentations on the program at conferences. Basing entrepreneurship programs off successful models can be a time saver and increase scales of efficiency. That’s exactly what happened with the University of Miami and The Launch Pad, a free university-wide entrepreneurship program founded in 2008 and located in the newly renovated Whitten University Center. 

Founded by William Green, Miami’s senior vice provost and dean of undergraduate education, The Launch Pad has a professional staff of three, a handful of student consultants, and offers coaching, consulting, competitions, and a speakers’ program for students, faculty, and alumni. Credited with assisting more than 4,900 clients and 480 companies, the program was such a successful model that the largest alternative asset investment firm in the world, Blackstone, modeled its successful Blackstone Launchpad
campus-based entrepreneurship program from it. 

Blackstone Launchpad is now active on 20 school campuses, and its services—free to students, faculty and alumni—are often provided just beyond the doors of the student union. 

“Why the student union? We knew the union serves as the heart of campus where students come from across all disciplines and we know entrepreneurship and creative ideas come from that intersection; the union serves as the crossroads for that intersection,” said Hadar Borden, the Blackstone LaunchPad director on the University at Buffalo campus. “Before we opened our doors (in 2016) we did a listening tour on campus, met with academic advisors and deans, and learned what they were interested in with respect to entrepreneurship. One thing you note is that everyone is learning research and development, but everyone also needs to learn pitching, whether it is to get an investment or a job.” 

Buffalo’s Blackstone LaunchPad program conducts events such as Innovation Sprints, where companies are identified in the area that have challenges pitching their services. Students then use creative problem solving to methodically develop a successful pitch. Another program is the Three-Minute Thesis that targets graduate students and asks them to think about their audience and identify them into segments. 

It also has developed a Social Impact Fellows Program, collaborating with the schools of management and social work, that has led to products like tech apps to support area nonprofits. 

“We know students are purposeful and socially minded so with this collaboration we were able to think about social innovation on a more global scale,” Borden said. “So we take our grad students and place them with a nonprofit organization that might be looking at a specific social issue.” 

The result has been development of a program to teach clients at a homeless outreach center how to do their own screen printing; another was a program to provide bike transportation to new immigrants in western New York in an effort to expand their job search capabilities; another program aimed to provide rental assistance and support service to combat homelessness in a unique group, foster youth aging out of the system. 

At Montana State University’s Strand Union Building, Blackstone Launchpad interim director Trevor Huffmaster proudly states: “We take walk-ins!” “Our goal is to serve all students; you don’t have to be in the college of business,” he said. “Historically, if you weren’t admitted into the college of business you couldn’t access those resources. Those doors have come down and people have realized you need a diversified team where everyone comes to the table. This is one of the key things we do.” 

Common pitfalls among young entrepreneurs


Potential investors and competitors might not take young business owners seriously 


Often young business people will hire friends as unqualified employees or may ask family to invest in their idea 


Their ideas are easily stolen by more experienced competitors and they encounter challenges with conference-based networking (booking conference hotel rooms, attending functions with alcohol, etc.)  


Many young entrepreneurs are not old enough to obtain a credit card, use online payment systems, or get a loan 

SOURCE: White, J. (2017). Pitfalls of being a Gen Z entrepreneur. Inc.com.


  • Steve Chaplin

    Steve Chaplin is managing editor of ACUI’s The Bulletin and manager of the ACUI College Union and Student Activities (CUSA) Evaluation Program. A former newspaper writer, editor, and manager, he has volunteered as a student mentor as a member of the National Association of Science Writers, and received awards for his writing and reporting from the Council for the Advancement and Support of Education, the Kentucky Education Association, and the Kentucky Press Association.

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