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Dec. 6, 2012 Volume 34, No. 15

Students gain retail ownership experience in program

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I’M THE BOSS Tank Zhu, an accounting junior, and two other MU juniors are learning how to be business owners in the Unions Entrepreneurial Program. Zhu hopes to start his own business after graduation. Rachel Coward photo


Program kicked off in 2010 with opening of the Student Center

Novelty Boutique is easy to miss in the bustling Student Center. The glass box seamlessly blends in with the other businesses.

But it’s an interesting world to enter. All the items, such as cell phone covers, mittens and rhinestone-engrained jewelry, have been imported from China and have an Eastern decorative flare. 

The retail store is the third business to occupy the space next to US Bank. 

Through the Unions Entrepreneurial Program, students apply to open a business in the Student Center space. Five applications were received to occupy the space through the fall and spring semesters. The chosen application came from juniors Tank Zhu, an accounting major, Yang Han, a finance major, and Hanjie Xiao, an economics major. 

The idea for the program came about during the initial planning stages of the Student Center, years before the center underwent construction. “We thought, Wouldn’t it be great if we had an area for students to have an entrepreneurial space?” said Michelle Froese, public relations and marketing manager in Student and Auxiliary Services. “It would give them an opportunity to develop their business.” 

The Student Center was expected to have plenty of foot traffic that would foster a new business, Froese said. She was right. More than 17,000 students visit the center daily when classes are in session. Potential customers abound.

The program began with the Student Center opening in 2010. Previous tenants include Internet companies and Listener Approved, and a clothing store. Student owners pay no rent or utility bills on the space. 

Because of the tremendous responsibility involved, the Unions Entrepreneurial Program created a rigorous application process. Applicants must submit at least 12 pages of material that includes items such as a business plan, financial summary and exit plan. After being chosen, students must fund, stock and market their store. 

Zhu and his partners are supported through a donation from US Bank and their parents, all of whom have business backgrounds in China, where the students are from.

“My parents always said a business isn’t easy to run,” Zhu said. “You have to put your heart into it. And actually, we’ve realized it’s hard. You have to think a lot about how to run it.”

No student wants to confess that mom and dad were right, but Zhu admits it proudly. His parents taught him how to conduct business, how to treat others and what it means to be a business owner.

However, his parents couldn’t teach him everything. Zhu and his partners have learned how to utilize social media to promote products, which products should be advertised and how the United States tax system works for their imported goods. 

“It’s about learning how to run a business,” said Lory Arnold, the student development coordinator. “Learning you have to work at it in order to succeed, and products just don’t sell themselves. Learning to write an exit plan. Learning what works and what doesn’t.”

An example is Chinese woodcarvings. The Novelty Boutique owners expected them to sell. They flopped. From that experience, they learned to monitor what sells and keep those products in stock. 

Zhu is becoming more comfortable in the role of business owner. He’ll keep learning and hopes to open an American business following graduation.

— Ashley Carman