Every woman loves to receive a compliment.
So when Stephanie Olsen received one on her headband, while having a coffee in a New York City café last winter, she was elated. Her delight was heightened by the fact that Olsen had made the headband herself, fashioning a lace flower atop a simple cotton headband in a last-minute moment of inspiration before she left the house that day.
“I decided it could be something and started making them for my friends,” Olsen, a 21-year-old senior at the University of Rhode Island said. “I love fashion, jewelry and accessories. I’m so into that.”
What she’s into now, while finishing up her studies in marketing, is making a go of it with S.O. Glam Headbands. She’s the latest entrant in the league of Rhode Island student entrepreneurs who have found success in imagining, developing and selling their products before they’ve earned a college degree.
The examples are, if not countless, at least numerous enough to take notice of despite mixed reviews among college-ranking lists.
No Rhode Island schools make an appearance on either Princeton Review’s or Entrepreneur Magazine’s top 25 lists of undergraduate and graduate programs for entrepreneurship. However, Brown University ranked No. 13 this year on Forbes’ list of most entrepreneurial colleges, citing alum Stephen Rattner, co-founder of the Quadrangle Group, a global private investment firm in New York and Hong Kong.
Brown boasts several successful entrepreneur alums, including Julie Sygiel, CEO of Dear Kate [originally named Sexy Period], a line of leak-proof underwear she first co-developed in 2008 while an undergraduate at Brown University.
“A lot of this is serendipity,” said Danny Warshay, who has taught, as an adjunct professor, a class in entrepreneurship at Brown since 2006 and who is the CEO of G-Form LLC, maker of “extreme” athletic and electronic, protective equipment. “I’m amazed and marveled at what my students are able to [produce]. In many cases, they’re really smart and don’t have enough concrete experience to know what they can’t do, so they go out and do it anyway.”
That points to the entrepreneurial nature of Generation Y, to which Warshay’s students and business starters like Olsen belong and who report, in numerous surveys, that they seek meaningful work and a flexible lifestyle over structure and a regular, large paycheck.
Olsen, however, has yet to break even on her investment on the headbands, which retail for between $10 and $30.
“I gave out so many [headbands] for free. It’s very hard trying to start your own business while you’re still in school, but I do have a ton of ideas I’m going to pursue when I’m out [when] I can put all my focus [on it],” Olsen said.
Student interest in entrepreneurship is widespread.
The 2012 Teens and Careers Survey of students ages 14-18 reported that 13 percent of respondents said they wanted to start their own business one day.
A 2012 Gallup survey of students in grades 5 through 12, in partnership with Operation Hope, reported that 77 percent of students want to be their own boss; 45 percent say they plan to start their own business and 42 percent think they will invent something that changes the world.
Warshay sees the entrepreneurial process from both sides.
When he was an undergraduate majoring in history at Brown, in the 1980s, he connected with a group of computer-science majors looking for someone to handle the business-operations end of a software product they were developing.
The group developed and ran Clearview Software Inc. and sold it to Apple in 1990.
“Sometimes, I think it’s better not to know enough. We learned by doing,” Warshay said. “My students are interested in starting something and changing something. They’re interested in innovation and entrepreneurship as a way to solve problems and change the world.”
Two of his former students, Tyler Gage and Dan MacCombie, created Runa, an energy- beverage company now based in Brooklyn, N.Y., that recently raised $3 million in venture capital.
Leanne Luce, a 21-year-old, fifth-year apparel design student at Rhode Island School of Design, developed her product, Slimline, a fold-up clothes-drying rack made to fit dormitory rooms, through a contest sponsored by Quirky, a social product-development company that uses a network of website followers to help produce new products each week.
Luce got the idea after returning from Italy, where everyone she saw dried their laundry on a clothes line. But RISD students aren’t allowed to set up, or nail in, a clothes line from dormitory walls.
“I got home from the Quirky meeting and had my stockings and sweaters hanging from my lamp. I was frustrated and thought it would be great if I had a more portable drying rack,” Luce said.
Mallory Musante started her business, Mallory Musante Shoes, while a student in Rhode Island at Bryant University. She now lives in New York.
Her hand-painted shoes are still sold by local retailers, including Modern Love on Westminster Street and Lola on North Main Street in Providence.
The business idea was sprung from the ending of the Hilary Swank movie “P.S., I Love You,” when the main character, after a tumultuous year, realizes her dream in shoe designing.
“It kind of totally was an aha moment,” said Musante, who earned a bachelor’s degree in marketing as a member of Bryant’s class of 2010. “I always loved shoes.”
She at first marketed her idea, after product research and joining the school’s Collegiate Entrepreneurs’ Organization, by wearing them herself. In her senior year she did a directed study as a marketing elective, where she produced her business plan.
She recently expanded her line to include bracelets.
Musante said Bryant’s CEO club was key in piquing her interest and confidence in starting her business.
The club has been named the best Collegiate Entrepreneurs’ Organization in the country four times in the last five years. The club has about 100 active members.
“We’ve got a really passionate tribe of people here, as we like to call it,” said Harris Roberts, the club president and a junior studying entrepreneurship and sales.
This past summer Roberts took his company, Providence Gourmet Kettle Corn, to farmers markets and festivals on a bike cart selling his product for $3 and $5 per bag.
He developed the recipe through a lot of trial and error and acquired the correct equipment and licensing.
“I would say I made enough to cover expenses and the cost of capital investment, so technically very close to profit,” Roberts said. •
Every woman loves to receive a compliment.