Alpaca business helps young entrepreneur pay for college

| Judy Berthiaume (story); Jesse Yang (video)

Like many Blugolds, Claire Bee is juggling her college classes with a part-time job, earning money that is helping her pay her tuition.

Blugold Claire Bee’s small alpaca business is helping her pay her tuition.

Blugold Claire Bee’s small alpaca business is helping her pay her tuition.

However, the UW-Eau Claire freshman is not waiting tables, working retail or doing any of the other kinds of jobs college students often find to help pay the bills.

Instead, she’s growing her 8-year-old small business, Rusty Gate Alpacas, a venture she started in her hometown of Mondovi while she was still in middle school.

“Having an alpaca business is unique,” Bee says. “I don’t know anyone else who has an alpaca farm and is going to school full time. It’s a nice source of income. It’s helping me get through college.”

While she always was involved in her family’s hobby farm, she knew little about alpacas until she visited an alpaca farm in 2011.

Surrounded by the herd of friendly alpacas, Bee fell in love with the animals and convinced her parents to add a pair of alpacas to the family’s hobby farm.

She was immediately hooked, and her herd quickly grew from two to 16. Soon she began to process and sell alpaca fibers as well as products made from the fibers.

“I sold to teachers, people in my hometown and people I didn’t even know,” Bee says. “It was fantastic.”

It's easy to see why Claire Bee enjoys spending time with her alpacas.

It's easy to see why Claire Bee enjoys spending time with her alpacas.

She shaves her alpacas once a year. The different fibers taken from the alpacas then are processed and used in various ways. For example, the softest fibers are spun into yarn and then made into things like hats, mittens and scarves, Bee says, noting that she now hires others to spin the yarn and make products from it to sell.

Being a very young owner of a business has been an incredible learning experience, Bee says.

“I started showing alpacas at the Minnesota Alpaca Expo when I was very young,” Bee says. “It was me with a bunch of adults. It helped me mature more quickly than other kids I knew because I was always around adults mingling and talking about business and business ideas.

“It’s really given me a business mindset and being a young entrepreneur has helped me grow tremendously as a person.”

Not surprisingly, the already successful entrepreneur now is studying business management, with an emphasis in entrepreneurship.

“I chose UW-Eau Claire because it’s close to my hometown and also because I’d heard fantastic things about its business programs,” Bee says. “I was a marketing major but changed it because my family has such a large background in entrepreneurship, so I thought that was a better fit for me.”

While she’s still several years from earning her degree, already she’s using what she’s learning at UW-Eau Claire to strengthen her business.

“I’m using all the knowledge I’m learning to further my business,” Bee says. “I’m trying to get as many tools as possible from the business program to be a better entrepreneur and to be more professional.”

Bee says she is fortunate to have several women who excelled in their own businesses who serve as her mentors and role models.

Her mother, aunt and others helped her learn about the animals and how to care for them.

“They also taught me about being an ethical farmer, which is very important to me,” Bee says.

While she is going to college full time, Bee continues to run her business, though she now depends on her parents more than she did when she was living at home. For example, she says, they’ve stepped in as needed to deliver baby alpacas when she is away.

“It can be a challenge,” Bee says of raising alpacas on her family’s hobby farm, especially now that’s she’s in college. “Lots of unexpected things happen. Animals get sick, babies are born early, or my shearer doesn’t show up. There is lots of scrambling and figuring something out to fix a problem.”

All that stress is offset, however, by the alpacas themselves, Bee says.

“Seeing a new baby alpaca is the most rewarding thing,” Bee says.

At the end of a busy week of classes, Bee says she looks forward to going to Mondovi to spend time with her herd and to keep her business on track.

“Going home to see the alpacas definitely is my stress release at the end of the week,” she says.

While she loves her farm, she also values her time on campus, where she’s meeting like-minded Blugolds, she says.

Interacting with other young people with a passion for entrepreneurship is exciting, she says, adding that events like this spring’s Entrepreneur Fest were especially helpful in making connections with others who are interested in running their own business.

“My freshman year has been phenomenal,” Bee says. “My journey as a business management student has already given me a lot of resources and connections with so many people. It’s really different from high school because I didn’t know any other students who had started their own business, so I never could really talk about it with anyone else.”

“There are so many opportunities here for young people like me, especially if they’re going into the business field. My business is only 20 minutes from Eau Claire, but I’ve developed new groups of friends that also make me feel very connected to campus.” 

Photo caption: Claire Bee, who just finished her freshman year at UW-Eau Claire, has been running her own alpaca business in Mondovi since she was in middle school.