Caitlyn Nguyen (left) and Joey Maloney
Caitlyn Nguyen (left) and Joey Maloney (right)

Experiential learning is a core component of the Department of Management curriculum. One course, MGT 1104, Foundations of Business, offers students a unique experiential learning opportunity – a project which allows them to start their own business while also enabling them to give back to the community. Over 800 students across 15 different sections from the Fall 2018 course gave back in a major way, raising over $17,000 for the Commonwealth of Virginia Campaign (CVC), a record amount for the course project and nearly half of the $40,000 total raised by the Pamplin College of Business.

“There is no better way for a business major to learn about business than by doing business,” says Stephen Skripak, a professor of practice in the Department of Management who has administered the project for the past four years. The “Food Cart Project” tasked teams of seven to eight students to launch a business of their choosing – with certain caveats, of course – with the profits going to a CVC-eligible charity. The title of the project comes from the default business model, a food cart, that teams are assigned if they choose not to launch their own business.

“We wanted the students to have the excitement of their product earning money,” Skripak explains. “Of course, they couldn’t keep the money, so the students picked from four different charities – including two with a local or campus interest – in order to give them a little extra incentive.”

The charities benefiting from the students’ hard work were the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society, Micah’s Backpack, Virginia Tech Volunteer Rescue Squad, and Disabled American Veterans.

“We chose Micah's Backpack because our team felt the most interconnected to a local organization that nourishes low-income families,” explains Caitlin Nguyen, whose team made a record-setting $604 profit. “We are fortunate enough to be educated at an institution like Virginia Tech, so we wanted to give back to those locally, especially to the children who we hope can one day receive higher level education as well.”

Nguyen’s team fought through a series of obstacles, as most business start-ups do, before ultimately finding success. According to Skripak, learning how to work through impediments is one of the primary objectives of the project.

“We want the students to understand what it takes to start a business from the beginning,” says Skripak. “To go through different things, like having to go through what entrepreneurs call a pivot.”

A pivot occurs when a company makes a fundamental change to their business model. For Nguyen’s team, their pivot occurred when they were forced to redesign their entire product after they realized their original product was infringing upon a trademark.

“We did not become aware that we could not use Virginia Tech's logo, or any trademarked words affiliated with Virginia Tech on our product until after we purchased our first order,” Nguyen explains. “Therefore, we had to shift to our contingency plan where I redesigned the product to have more generic content on it that alluded to Micah's Backpack's purpose.”

Necessity breeds innovation, however, and the setback ultimately drove the team to success.

“Since the redesign postponed our selling date by a few weeks,” Nguyen says, “we decided to begin selling through online orders, which allowed us to organize orders and not restrict ourselves to only storefront sales.

“In the end, this decision drove our group to success as we earned over six times as much from online orders as we did from storefront sales.”

Skripak states that problem-solving is what drives the groups to outdo one another each year. “Every year students come up with a new twist in order to be successful,” he says. “To be successful you need to be innovative.”

The Spring 2019 Foundations of Business “Food Cart Project” is currently on-going, but Skripak wonders if the classes can continue to outdo one another in regard to money raised as “the record is getting pretty high.”

According to Nguyen, the record was simply a byproduct of the hard work she and her team put into a project designed to prepare them for a future in business.

“This project taught us a lot about the organizational and management aspects that come with running a business,” she says. “It gave us first-hand experience learning how to communicate with ‘clients,’ writing detailed reports, creating financial spreadsheets, organizing data, and more.”

She continues, “I wanted our group to learn the most from our obstacles and manage our way around them in order to achieve the highest profits that we could in order to give back to the community.”

Written by Jeremy Norman