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Building a business while earning degrees

While thousands of Blugolds juggle part-time work and school, and many new grads have jobs lined up long before graduation day, a growing number of entrepreneurial students at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire are taking things a step further —they're starting their own businesses while still working toward their bachelor's degrees.

Their reasons for being both entrepreneurs and students vary as much as their business models. But all agree that combining real-world experiences and in-the-classroom learning is enhancing their college experience and better preparing them for a lifetime of success.

By balancing the demands of school and a business, these students are expanding their options, said Ann Rupnow, coordinator of the entrepreneur program.

"If you know how to start your own business, you're building confidence in multiple ways and giving yourself options for when you graduate," Rupnow said. "If you choose to work for an employer, your entrepreneurial experiences and mindset may make you more valuable. And if you remain an entrepreneur, you have the knowledge and skills that set you up for a more likely chance of success."

The students who already are finding success as entrepreneurs also recognize the valuable connections and relationships they can develop while in school, Rupnow said.

"The students who are most entrepreneurial minded use every possible opportunity to make connections on campus," Rupnow said. "They're assertive in tapping into mentors, and always make sure they introduce themselves to guest speakers. If they already own a business, they really understand the importance of these connections and they make the most of every opportunity."

By modeling those behaviors and sharing their real-world experiences, student entrepreneurs bring energy and perspectives to classroom discussions that help all students better understand the challenges and opportunities that go along with owning a business, Rupnow said.

The following are stories about three Blugolds who are successfully running businesses while also working toward their degrees.

20141218_Stern_0019-webKyle Stern
Senior, management-entrepreneur major

Owner, Stern Real Estate

Kyle Stern was still in high school when he first had a taste of what it's like to own his own business. When he was just 17 his dad, a successful entrepreneur in Antigo, passed away leaving Kyle and his brother his Dish Network business as well as 20 rental properties.

He sold his share of the Dish franchise to his brother, but he held on to the real estate, said Stern, a senior management-entrepreneur major.

Recognizing the opportunity to earn significant money through owning and managing rental properties, Stern decided that his future career was going to be in the real estate business.

Currently, Stern owns 30 properties on his own and 120 properties in partnership with his brother.

"I'm making good money from the rentals and plan to keep growing my business," Stern said, noting that he bought 11 properties this past year. "My goal is to someday make $50,000 a month from my real estate business. So until I hit that mark, I'll keep buying more properties. I plan to retire by age 40."

While Stern is satisfied that he's already well on his way to accomplishing his financial and professional goals through Stern Real Estate, he's also proud that he's also on track to meet his educational goals. He plans to graduate in December 2015.

"I was already into this real estate business before I even went to college, and I feel like I already know what I need to know to be successful in this business," Stern said of deciding to pursue his degree while also running his business. "But I don't want to be 35 and regret not having had a college experience.

"Someday, I want to have kids and I want them to know that education matters and that you have to work hard to get what you want in life. It's hard to run my business at the same time I'm a full-time student, but failure is not an option. I want to tell my kids that I did this and now it's their turn to do whatever it takes to be successful."

While what he's studying in his business and entrepreneur courses tie most directly to his existing business, the knowledge and skills he's gaining through other classes also benefits him, Stern said.

"While I like being the boss, I am learning how to work as part of a team and how to motivate myself and others to keep going," Kyle says. "Those are important things for any successful business."

Interacting daily with other bright and ambitious young adults also is a bonus, Stern said, noting that he recently started a vending machine business with another student he met on campus.

Managing his own profitable business also is helping him graduate with little debt, Stern said, adding that he's only had to take out one loan during his college career.

"Having cash as a student is a huge benefit," Stern said. "It makes life a lot simpler if I'm making my cash by working for my own business. I can be studying and also be taking phone calls. If I worked at a restaurant, I couldn't do both. This way, I can take care of school and my business wherever I need to be."

While there are perks, there also are challenges to juggling a thriving business and a full load of classes, Stern said.

For example, if he's negotiating a sale on a new property, a critical call may come in while he's in a class. He knows that if he steps out to take the call, he'll miss important information, but if he doesn't take the call his deal may fall apart.

Since his properties are located in eastern Wisconsin and in the Twin Cities, he sometimes has to miss full days of classes to travel for meetings or closings, Stern said.

"Fortunately, most of my professors understand what I'm trying to do so they are willing to work with me," Stern said. "They know I get things done. I take both my business and school very seriously —they both are profitable and valuable in different ways so I do what I have to do in both to be successful."

20141215_Benzo_web0019Tomas Benzo
Senior, management-entrepreneur major

Co-owner, Next Level Soccer

Tomas Benzo turned his passion for soccer into a successful business when he and a friend launched Next Level Soccer, a summer youth soccer program in Rochester, Minnesota.

Soccer has continued to grow in popularity among youth in Rochester, and an increasing number of teens want to play soccer at more competitive levels, Benzo said. Yet there were few opportunities outside of the organized soccer programs for youth to receive the kind of hands-on coaching that will help them build their skills, he said.

"We looked at the numbers and realized that this was an untapped market," said Benzo, a native of Argentina whose family now lives in Rochester. "I've been in soccer my entire life;being from Argentina it's kind of in my blood. We realized we could use our passion for soccer and coaching to establish a business that would fill a niche. The numbers supported our ideas so we were confident that this was going to succeed."

Next Level Soccer served nearly 20 soccer players during its first summer, which is about the number he and his business partner determined they could serve well, Benzo said.

"We're very hands-on in helping the kids with their speed, quickness and agility," Benzo said of the decision to keep their numbers small. "We try to help them get to the next level in their soccer careers. We want to do this well so we were careful when deciding how many kids we could work with and give them what they needed."

Having the opportunity to combine his interest in business with his love of sports was rewarding, said Benzo, who hopes to continue nurturing those dual passions by pursuing a career in sports analytics, a growing field within the world of professional sports. Professional teams are using sports analytics for everything from player skill development to in-game decision-making to contract negotiations, he said.

While soccer is a lifelong passion, even it pales in comparison to his love of basketball, Benzo said. He hopes his success as a business owner and the skills he's building in his studies of marketing analytics will eventually take him to the top of the professional basketball world. His long-term goals include being a general manager of an NBA team and then someday serving as commissioner of the NBA.

"Analytics is a field that's exploding within professional sports," Benzo said of the career track that most interests him. "I think it's going to help take me where I want to go in my life."

Because the sport analytics field is so new, his experience in and studies around entrepreneurship will be especially valuable, Benzo said. Entrepreneurs need to be creative thinkers who understand how they can fill a certain niche, he said. As an emerging field, marketing analytics within sports requires the same kinds of thinking and skills, he said.

"My understanding is that a lot of places are hiring people with analytics skills and then giving them plenty of room to be creative and explore the different ways they can contribute," Benzo said. "That's really the best of both worlds because you have the stability of working for an established company yet really are not boxed in by what's been done in the past."

Being able to market himself as a successful entrepreneur already is helping him take steps toward his long-term goals, Benzo said. He will spend the 2015 baseball season working as a marketing analytics intern with the Minnesota Twins, he said, adding that he thinks his experience as an entrepreneur likely made him stand out among the internship applicants.

"It's truly amazing to see the opportunities that just unfold once you become an entrepreneur," Benzo said. "It's so much easier to network with employers because you have credibility that comes with running your own business. It also shows potential employers that you have initiative as well as skills and knowledge."

Planning and then running the soccer business also gave him a taste of how satisfying it can be to create a business model based on his own ideas and vision for how it might look, Benzo said.

"It really gave me a chance to let my creativity flow," Benzo said. "I got to think outside the box and think a little more freely than I might have had I been working for someone else."

His experiences with the business is making his coursework even more meaningful, Benzo said.

"Everything is just resonating with me in a different way," Benzo said. "I went through this whole process of making decisions and not being sure they were the right decisions. Through my classes, especially when we have entrepreneurs come in to share their path and their ups and downs, I'm figuring out what I did right and maybe could have done differently.

"I've learned more in my entrepreneurial class this fall than I learned in the last three-and-a-half years here. That's not a knock on UW-Eau Claire but a reflection of how a real-world experience can provide insight that is incredibly valuable to a college student."

In addition to giving him real-world business experience, Next Step Soccer also helped him earn money during a summer when he also completed two internships, neither of which were paid.

While his soccer business is successful, Benzo said he's uncertain about its long-term future. He and his business partner, NIco Suarez, plan to keep the business running while they are still in college, but he's not sure that it will continue after they graduate.

They also will tweak their business model a bit given Benzo's internship with the Minnesota Twins. Since he'll be in Minneapolis, they'll have to hire coaches to do the hands-on work coaching with the teens in Rochester, he said.

"It was a great experience and it is successful so we are keeping our options open," Benzo said of Next Level Soccer's future. "We're still paying the insurance and the licensing so we're still involved in it. And we both want to help kids get better at soccer since it's a sport that's so important to us. I have no doubt it's a sustainable business and that we could keep making money if we continue it. The question is how it fits into our more long-term goals."

20141217_Gantzer_web0066Carl Gantzer
Senior, management-entrepreneur

Elv8d Entertainment

Carl Gantzer was a teenager struggling to deal with a challenging family situation when he picked up a set of drum sticks and discovered that making music gave him an outlet he desperately needed.

"I was immediately hooked," said Gantzer, who now is a senior. "Creating music gave me a feeling I'd never had before. It helped me reflect and express myself in a different way. It relaxed me. I loved it."

Determined to improve his skills, he was searching for a new drum set when he met a fellow music lover who encouraged him to check out the annual New Year's Eve bash at The Rave in Milwaukee, the Midwest's largest venue for electronic dance music.

"I'd been to a lot of rock concerts but this experience just blew me away," Gantzer said of the show. "The release of energy was unreal. There was none of the violence or other stuff that you sometimes see at rock concerts. This was just everyone having fun;everyone's goal seemed to be to make sure everyone else was happy. I knew right away that this was what I want to do —I want to make people feel like I did at that concert."

Electronic music artists use a variety of technologies to create music, music that often is used by disc jockeys at nightclubs and other dance-based entertainment venues. DJs mix the music creatively to provide a unique show.

"I knew right away that I wanted to get into this," Gantzer said. "I bought a turntable and right away was addicted to it. I love studying the notes on songs and understanding the song structures. There are so many cool things you can do with it. A good DJ is an artist. You have to be creative in your song choices and how you make a set flow."

Soon after discovering his passion for electronic music, Gantzer began to DJ at his high school dances, gaining confidence and motivation as he watched his classmates "go nuts to the music."

Once enrolled at UW-Eau Claire, he continued to build his skills and his understanding of the artistic and business sides of the electronic music industry.

"After five years of being a DJ, I'm now more interested in creating music so I can market it and be in front of people with it," Gantzer said.

Since his first visit to The Rave, Gantzer has performed there three times, twice as part of its popular New Year's Eve show. As a result, he began venturing into the business side of the music industry by investing in buying and selling tickets to the annual New Year's Eve show, tickets that increase in value as Dec. 31 nears.

It was that ticket venture that brought him in contact with other players in the electronic music industry who were interested in the business side of the entertainment industry.

Gantzer now is part of Elv8d Entertainment, a company that throws its own electronic dance music parties in La Crosse.

"We do dance parties that feature three or four headliners," Gantzer said. "We organize everything, set up the stage, the sound and the lights. We've done several of them and they've gone really well. The last few shows have sold out with us selling about 300 tickets."

While he's not making a lot of money from the shows given the costs involved in their production, the experience he's gaining is worth the time and energy he invests in the business, Gantzer said.

"Things are really blowing up in the electronic music business," Gantzer said. "There is so much opportunity in the industry. There are new artists and new techniques coming out all the time. It's exciting because it's a growing industry that's going to have more and more opportunities. That I'm already so involved in it is going to mean even more opportunities for me as it becomes more mainstream."

Opportunities are especially strong in smaller communities like La Crosse, where there are high numbers of young people who have an interest in music but who have few options to go to live shows, Gantzer said.

"We're giving people an experience there that they can't get without traveling to a bigger metro area," Gantzer said, noting that their target demographic is people ages 21-30. "We're reaching people who love music but have never seen anything like this before. There is just a lot of opportunity in La Crosse and in other similar places, including Eau Claire."

While he's enjoying being part of Elev8ed, he's continuing to make his own music. Someday, he said, he'd like to make his living doing his own shows throughout the country.

The knowledge and skills he's gaining at UW-Eau Claire will be valuable as he works to market himself and manage what he hopes will be a successful career in the complex entertainment industry.

Juggling the demands from his business and his coursework also is preparing him for whatever the future brings, Gantzer said.

"I've learned a lot of time management skills," Gantzer said. "I know when I have to focus on my school work and when I can take the time to be creative and to take care of the business. I try to approach school and music with the same level of intensity because I know both are important."

UW-Eau Claire's entrepreneurial program was the perfect fit for him because it allows him to pursue his passion while staying on track to earn his bachelor's degree, Gantzer said.

The program, he said, has given him much-needed direction as he plans for his future.

"I was lost my freshman year because I really was questioning everything except my love for music," Gantzer said. "But after I started getting a little into the business side of music and found the entrepreneur program, it all came together for me. It's so applicable to what I want to do that it became obvious how I can connect my education to my interests in the electronic music industry."

Everything from creating marketing plans to developing strategies for improving his interpersonal skills will help him with his current business as well as with future ventures, he said.

"I'm feeling more confident about navigating different situations and thinking strategically," Gantzer said. "How I'm organizing my thinking is changing so much. I'm better at understanding other people's perspectives and communicating my own thoughts and that's going to be huge in this business. There is so much that I'm picking in college that I'm using in all parts of my business. Even when I DJ, I'm thinking about my audience differently."