Students walking through the University of Missouri Student Center spot a dog wearing a T-shirt. They wander over to pet it.
The dog stands outside a storefront, drawing customers into ThreadBare, a consignment store. Inside the store, customers are greeted by walls covered in chalk doodles and positive words.
ThreadBare sells gender-neutral clothing and accessories, all for under $15. In the same space, there’s a kiosk for another business, called Stuff in a Box, that makes custom care packages for students.
Since 2010, the Missouri Student Unions Entrepreneurial Program has offered space in the MU Student Center for students to operate their own business.
Students apply to “win” the storefront, and winners are selected based on the quality of their business plans. Winning teams receive seed money of $2,000 and get a prime spot on campus that draws an estimated 17,000 to 18,000 passersby each week.
ThreadBare is run by a quartet of co-founders pursuing degrees in different subjects. Allison Fitts studies marketing, Kyle Gunby studies strategic communication, Gabriel Riekhof studies finance and Zach Bine studies accounting.
“None of us want to go into retail or the clothing industry,” Fitts said. “But I think all of the skills that we get with managing a team, basic financial calculations, even marketing, will help us in the future.”
As chief procurement officer, Fitts buys all inventory for ThreadBare. Her main responsibility is to ensure every item is tagged and logged in the store’s point-of-sale system. She has traveled all around the country to find specific items to sell at the store.
Varied businesses, destinations
Nine businesses have occupied the Student Center storefront since 2010. Past tenants include Quirks, a consignment shop; Indiependence Boutique, a clothier selling independent brands from around the state; and MizzMenus, a Web-based food delivery service that is still operational today.
Zach Beattie, a co-founder of Quirks, was named the 2014 Student Entrepreneur of the Year by the University of Missouri System. He now works for Mapbox, a Washington-based company that makes maps for Web and mobile applications.
“I wouldn’t have my current job (without) the experience I had through the entrepreneurial program,” Beattie said. “It was huge to be able to share the story behind Quirks while I was job hunting.”
Kiarah Moore Ivory, founder of Indiependence Boutique, now works in Chicago as a clothing designer and fashion consultant and blogger.
Other students have gone on to graduate programs, including the Stanford Graduate School of Business.
Regardless of the students’ future plans, they all have an opportunity to hone skills that will prove useful, according to Michelle Mazza Froese, the assistant director of communications for student and auxiliary services at MU.
“For those who did not continue on in their business, we feel that the hands-on experience proved invaluable,” Mazza Froese said. “The knowledge and skills acquired in an applied learning context are applicable to any profession.”
‘A launching pad’
Greg Bier, a professor of management at MU and director of the university’s Entrepreneurship Alliance, said the storefront program’s goal is to get students to try something by giving them free space and a small amount of seed money.
“It gets them to understand the complications of dealing with cash flow, sales tax licenses, the supply chain, payroll, inventory and pricing type issues and the marketing, and to have a free place to do it,” Bier said. “It’s a free trial of your business, and it’s low risk.”
For entrepreneurial students, the store provides a taste of running a business while they still have the safety net of the university.
“It’s a launching pad for entrepreneurs to develop the talent and the confidence so that when the next big opportunity decides to come, they are ready to take it,” Bier said. “They’ve already done the small-scale storefronts. They are ready for something bigger.”