N.J. college students picking entrepreneurship over poor job market

Wednesday, 20 October 2010 12:04
threesixfive102010_optBY SANDRA LANMAN

About a year ago, Rutgers student Ryan Cheek began pondering his future in the real world and didn't like what he saw.

"I looked around at the job scenario and knew I could wake up one morning and see my job gone," said the third-year School of Arts and Sciences political science major from Mays Landing.

What Cheek did next would make Horatio Alger smile. He founded Three Six Five Enterprises, a company specializing in "wildstyle" screen-printed shirts, vinyl stickers, graphic design services, photography, and even small-business consulting. On his business card, in red, is his company's motto: "Crazy is as crazy does."

"They're ridiculous shirts and they sell," he said about his bold designs capable of raising a few eyebrows.

His venture became so busy that he had to secure a workshop, office, and two-car garage in Woodbridge. "I just started to turn a profit," he said proudly.

Last month, Cheek was one of 16 student entrepreneurs eager to share their success stories. They were exhibitors at an event sponsored by the Rutgers Entrepreneurial Society, a student organization founded two years ago to bring together "visionary, like-minded student entrepreneurs" and offer them tools and training.

Dubbed "The Sexy Side of Entrepreneurship," the September evening was aimed at curious skeptics who might think running a business is dull stuff.

"We wanted to show there is a sexier side to business," said Ridah Mannan, the group's vice president of marketing and promotions "Being an entrepreneur doesn't have to be boring. It can be about music, painting, or fashion."

Like the name of its website — thinkbig.rutgers.edu — this student group aims high. The formal presenters at the glittery affair, which drew more than 200 students and featured live music, included Randal Pinkett, part owner of BCT Partners and 2005 winner of The Apprentice; Terry Stewart, president and CEO of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame; and Matt Myklusch, author and director of ancillary business for MTV Networks — all Rutgers alumni with high-profile credentials.

Pinkett told the students that entrepreneurs work hard and, as a rule, are very competitive. "You have to pay your dues," he said.

Philip Annand, the only current student on the panel, has been marketing his own T-shirt creations since high school in Lawrenceville. He said his new lines sell out quickly on his websites, theawardtour.com and madurytour.com. "Large companies still haven't figured out the Internet," said Annand, an American studies major who also serves as a residence-life assistant.

Marketing takes a decidedly "Net Generation" approach for the young entrepreneurs. Cheek uses Facebook to advertise his goods and hire "official 365 campus reps." May Chiu, a third-year Rutgers Business School student, has 2,500 followers on Twitter. They have instant access to her latest jewelry, clothing, and accessories, which she designs, makes, and markets on her website as the Mayflower Fashions.

Jason Akoi and his partner Toby Babijive rely on the Internet to sell high-end leather book bags and duffles designed by Akoi and manufactured overseas. They named their company Herds of the Fathers because "we wanted to make something timeless," Akoi said.

A political science major from Irvington, Akoi considers the Internet indispensable. "You don't have to get a degree in something to be good at it," he said. "You Google it, you study it; it's all there for you."

But any illusions the students might have had that running a business would be easy were quickly dissipated once they took the plunge.

"I did not expect it to be this hard. I thought I'd just go online," said Chiu of Mayflower Fashions. "I've fixed my marketing plan and become more engaged with my audience."

Cheek concurred. "This is a lot of work," he said. "It's blood, sweat, and tears." Nonetheless, he encourages other students to go the entrepreneurial route. "I don't understand why you don't see this more," he said. "It makes too much sense."

Like Cheek, more students may be gazing into the future and coming up with new game plans. Last month, 58 students attended a Career Services workshop on entrepreneurship — nearly three times more than last year, according to Assistant Director Jennifer Broyles.

"Students are very frustrated with the job market and probably a bit fearful," Broyles said. "The perceived lack of available positions may be giving them the freedom and opportunity to take risks they may not have taken if they'd graduated five years ago. I also think there's a buzz and an energy on campus around the topic of entrepreneurism."

At the Entrepreneurial Society's event, two themes came up repeatedly: Passion and following one's dreams.

Stewart, Rock and Roll Hall of Fame's CEO, graduated from Rutgers in the late 1960s with a degree in engineering. But he ultimately followed his passion for rock and roll: "When you love what you do," he said, "every day is a weekend."