Entrepreneurship

The Burlington Business Incubator mentors student entrepreneurs at Middlebury College

Middlebury entrepreneurs went to Burton to meet the leaders and team members of the snowboard company. Photo courtesy of Middlebury Innovation Hub

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

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

Bradbury and Vice President Sam Roach-Gerber teach the course, now in its ninth year.

One of the students, James Heath, is building a website called Dormplex that 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 the Claremont Colleges in California before launching it in Middlebury in February. (One of his partners attends Pitzer College, one of Claremont’s seven colleges.)

Heath said he hopes the class will teach him some of the basics of building a company.

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

Ultimately, students decide whether to pursue their careers while in college, and about a third of them do, 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 that their idea is an opportunity – something that they can make money over and over again, and that they can scale so that they can support the team.

Bradbury said VCET helps start-up companies at as many as six colleges in the state, but he sees Middlebury as the best entrepreneurial campus in Vermont.

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

Every year, students attend a dinner with the founders of the company at the home of Elizabeth and James Robinson in Weybridge. Photo courtesy of Middlebury Innovation Hub

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 courses, mentorship, funding and space.

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

One of the more recognizable entrepreneurs to come out of Middlebury is Corinne Prevot, who founded Skida, a Burlington ski hat company. She grew the company while at Middlebury, though Bradbury said she didn’t take his course.

Senior Sophie Hiland, whose business Over Easy makes faux fur hoodies, uses the space Middlebury makes available at her Old Stone Mill to run her company. Last year, she attended the January course for entrepreneurship.

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

Hyland, who grew up in Chicago’s North Shore suburbs, said it’s unlikely she’ll stay in Vermont to run her company after graduation. She plans to move to New York and focus on a job in elementary education. But she said she plans to continue running Over Easy on the side.

VCET President David Bradbury is teaching the January entrepreneurship course at Middlebury College. Photo courtesy of Middlebury Innovation Hub

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