At a round table in Kansas City, Demi Sadock sat wide-eyed, hands moving wildly back and forth and scribbling notes on sticky pads that she attached to a wide piece of white paper.
Students from across the country gathered there for the College Entrepreneurs’ Organization (CEO) annual conference last fall and Sadock captivated her peers. Ideas she has. Tons of them in fact. More than she can handle at times. They come to her at night, riding in a car, in casual conversations and when she needs to solve a problem. She filled the wide piece of white paper.
Sadock, of Hershey, Pennsylvania, is a senior WVU Davis College fashion dress and merchandising major and one of the first 10 WVU Davis College Young Innovator Fellows. The pilot program began in fall 2015, supported by grants from The Claude Worthington Benedum Foundation and Farm Credit of the Virginias. This budding entrepreneur was selected based on her idea to create a unique knit wear company that will utilize 100 percent natural fibers and potentially operate as a nonprofit to give back to the community.
She and nine other WVU Davis College Young Entrepreneurs spent the fall 2015 semester learning leadership skills, refining their business concepts, figuring out what resources they need to be successful and networking with peers and mentors at events like the CEO conference.
“Failure. I believe overall that is the biggest part of being an entrepreneur and definitely that prevailing message to take away from Kansas City,” she said. “If you’re going to be an entrepreneur prepare to fail, but don’t prepare to quit.”
The WVU Davis College Young Innovators Fellowship is helping to teach budding innovators and entrepreneurs that failure is just a part of the creative process that leads to new businesses, fresh ideas and creates business opportunities in farming, food and design. The two-year program is providing students with the day to day skills to become successful innovators, leaders and entrepreneurs, and giving them a network and resources to achieve their goals.
The program also awards up to $3,000 a year for students to utilize in creating their own business or to further an innovation. Students can use the funding to meet with mentors, attend conferences, buy supplies, pay for a business license or assist them with their college education. Students also interact with a Young Innovators Resource Team made up of faculty, practitioners, managers of working capital, business support and training organizations, and networking groups.
For Sadock, fashion and entrepreneurship are family traits.
“I’ve always known I wanted to be a fashion designer” she said. “My family has been in the fashion industry my whole life.”
Her grandfather handmade her bathing suites when she was a kid. He was a fashion designer and a pattern maker in New York City who moved to the United States from Greece to marry her grandmother, who is Italian. After her grandparents came to the U.S., they started a lingerie company that part of her family still owns. Her aunt operates a golf apparel company.
Sadock’s mom owns her own dog walking pet service. Her dad is also an entrepreneur who works in information technology and designs capital campaigns for state troopers.
“It wasn’t until about last year that I wanted to start my own business. I always thought I would work under a big corporation,” she said. “But I want the say in what kinds of fashion we are putting out.”
The WVU Davis College Young Innovators Fellowship has lit an entrepreneurial fire within Sadock.
“This program has been an outlet for encouragement and trying new things,” she said. “This program has put things in motion and opened up new opportunities. It’s giving me knowledge and resources.”
The aim of the program is to show that with external funding, mentoring, and networking from a robust resource team, the WVU Davis College can accelerate moving students from concept to creation, ensuring their success as well as speeding up the time it takes for them to build a business or advance a technology or pursue any form of innovation once they graduate, or even before. The program relies on building leadership and knowledge first.
It isn’t a cake walk either. The program was designed to be competitive and students are expected to attend out-of-class events, special clinics and go above the everyday classwork to achieve their goals.
“At times it seems really stressful, but it’s pushing me in the right direction,” Sadock said.
By the end of the 2015 semester, students created a Young Innovator Success Portfolio that outlined where they would take their ventures or ideas, had participated in a low ropes leadership day and in a variety of business clinics that ranged from etiquette training to how to legally register a business. The hope is that students will want to create, and create in West Virginia.
“Enhancing and sustaining the rural economy of West Virginia is vitally important to the state, and there’s a clear need for innovation and entrepreneurship to support that,” said Robison. “Through the Young Innovators Fellowship Program, we’ll be able to build an even more fertile innovation and entrepreneurship environment among students, faculty, farmers, rural business and technology developers, and others who have a stake in these critical issues.”
At the CEO conference, Sadock networked with peers and mentors, came up with new product ideas, learned about grants and loans that she could apply for and added nearly 30 people to her LinkedIn account.
“I hope that by the end of the program, I will be at a point that I can do it on my own. Right now it’s understanding the processes,” Sadock said. “I need to become sustainable on my own.”
The biggest hurdle for Sadock – getting all of her “ducks in line.”
“It’s hard to really be structured,” Sadock said. “You can’t be scared to try.”
As she learned during the fall semester, being confident enough to experiment is the most important part of innovating.
“I hear so many times from students my age, ‘I don’t think my idea is good enough,’ but in this program you are given the opportunity to try,” she said. “If at the end of the day you do fail, that stinks, but you can chalk it up to experience.”
Sadock said few people have the opportunity to explore their innovative side in college.
“I feel extremely blessed to know that ideas for my products are valid, and to have a group of supportive people standing behind me and supporting me along the way is incredible,” she said. “Now it’s up to me.”