Having spent 30 years in business before transitioning to academia, Assistant Professor of Business Administration Joe Sprangel structures his courses, in large part, around the work done in the “real world.”
It was serendipitous then, that local shop owner and artisan Lisa Jacenich had recently reached out to Mary Baldwin University to benefit from the knowledge and eagerness of students to help develop strategies for boosting business at her store Artful Gifts, located in Staunton’s wharf district. The interaction resulted in real-world experience for students in Sprangel’s fall semester Sustainability and Strategy in Business Decisions class and beneficial advice for Jacenich.
“I realize what an incredible resource the students are,” Jacenich said. “And the ability for students to work with a micro-manufacturing business as well as a retail business is an incredible opportunity for them.”
Jacenich’s shop is the only mechanized fiber studio in Virginia, so the experience was one of a kind. She makes cloth felt from the raw fiber of sheep’s wool and turns that into naturally water-repellant clothing for men, women, and children.
Students conducting a strategic plan for Artful Gifts realized that Jacenich was tapping into a niche market and wanted to not only increase profits but also raise awareness for how sustainable her product is.
“We suggested that the best way for her to achieve her goals was to implement an effective marketing strategy,” said Charleen Frederick ’15, a business management major from St. Vincent and the Grenadines. Students also advised Jacenich on improving signage and placement of product to encourage a better flow within the store.
“It is very rewarding to know that you can have such a significant impact on the business community,” Frederick said. “[The experience] showed that possibilities are endless with the knowledge that we have gained. It gave me the necessary tools and experience I would need to enter into the business world.”
In addition to the work on Jacenich’s business plan, some of Sprangel’s students focused on ways to increase foot traffic for the stores in the wharf district. Another group developed a plan for training nomads in Mongolia to make felt, as Jacenich has been invited by the Mongolian government to help their felters become mechanized.
“It was exciting to know that we were able to actually have an impact on a real business since this is what most of us are going to school to learn how to do,” said senior business major Amanda Slemaker, who added that the student team suggested Jacenich “reach out to a younger audience, as her product is incredibly sustainable and younger generations find these sustainable products to be somewhat of a commodity.”
The partnership has spilled over into senior projects, and Sprangel hopes students next fall may continue to work with Jacenich. Senior Blake Herendeen is working with Jacenich this semester to improve marketing and communications for Artful Gifts, including creating a social media presence.
The growth in the students from the beginning of the class to the client presentations was significant, Sprangel said. “I am sure the students thought that I had lost my mind at times as I pushed them far beyond what they thought was reasonable of them. Once again the ‘real-world’ application of the course content taught them skills that cannot be replicated in the classroom.”