Burlington business incubator teaches student entrepreneurs at Middlebury College

Thirteen Middlebury College students are spending their January semester learning entrepreneurship at the Vermont Center for Emerging Technologies, a Burlington business incubator.

To qualify, each student must have their own business to promote. About a third of the students in this year’s class are already generating income, according to VCET President David Bradbury.

Bradbury and Vice President Sam Roach-Gerber are teaching the course, which is in its ninth year.

One of the students, James Heath, is creating a website called Dormplex which allows students to offer goods and services to others on their campus. Heath, a sophomore, said Tuesday that he and his partners plan to launch a beta version of the website this week at Claremont Colleges in California before launching it at Middlebury in February. (One of his partners attends Pitzer College, one of seven colleges in Claremont.)

Heath said he hopes the class teaches him some of the basics of starting a business.

As part of the course, students go on field trips and work on their business plans. They learn about selling, accounting, pricing and how to raise capital, Bradbury said. The course includes guest appearances from venture capitalists and other entrepreneurs.

In the end, students decide whether or not to continue in college, and about a third of them continue to do so, according to Bradbury.

One concept he and Roach-Gerber teach students, Bradbury said, is to discover their customers.

“And that means going out and talking to people who aren’t your roommate or your mom or your teammate,” he said. They have to prove their idea is an opportunity – something they can make money on repeatedly and scale to be able to support a team.

Bradbury said VCET helps start businesses at no less than six colleges across the state, but he considers Middlebury the best entrepreneurial campus in Vermont.

“They have been focusing on student creativity, innovation and entrepreneurship for over a decade now,” he said. “It’s an unexpected place of entrepreneurial energy.”

Heath, who is from Detroit, agreed. “I think it’s probably one of the best places in the country,” he said.

Middlebury launched its first entrepreneurship program about 15 years ago, said Heather Neuwirth Lovejoy, director of Middlebury’s innovation center. She said the college provides student entrepreneurs with tuition, mentorship, funding and space.

“It’s a really amazing vehicle to show students all that Vermont has to offer,” she said of the January course.

One of the most recognizable entrepreneurs to come out of Middlebury is Corinne Prevot, who founded Skida, Burlington’s ski hat company. She developed the business in Middlebury, although Bradbury said she did not take her course.

Senior Sophie Hiland, whose business Over Easy manufactures faux fur balaclavas, is using the space Middlebury makes available in her Old Stone Mill to run her business. She took the entrepreneurship course in January last year.

“Coming together with other students and mentors to talk about challenges and empathize was really valuable,” she said.

Hiland, who grew up in the northern suburbs of Chicago, said she was unlikely to stay in Vermont to run her business after graduating. She plans to move to New York and focus on getting a job in elementary education. But she said she plans to continue running Over Easy on the side.

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