By BECKY GILLETTE
The Millsaps Community Enrichment Series adult education courses don’t provide college credits, but provide something that many might find more valuable such as taking a great business idea from a gleam in the eye to a successful launch of a new business.
“I view my role as that of a facilitator,” said Joe Donavan, who teaches several enrichment series courses including one on entrepreneurial development. “Most of the information they already have between their ears. It is interesting the ideas people come up with. It is just a matter of doing market research, and developing a business plan.”
Often it starts with someone trying to solve a problem. A case is a student who saw difficulties with the wine communion cup cloths used in Catholic and Episcopal services. The traditional cloth used to wipe the cup between users stains easily, and the student questioned how hygienic the cloth was.
“In researching the market, we found that were a limited number of suppliers of that particular type of cloth and that they were very expensive,” said Donavan, a former fire chief in Ohio who has launched about ten of his own businesses. “She believed this opened up a window for her to start a new business. So we contacted a couple of cloth providers that I had worked with in the past, and came up with an anti-bacterial, impregnated cloth that was stain resistant for about 25 percent of the cost of the current product on the market. She has since started a successful business at it.”
In another case of problem solving, a man who worked in HVAC recognized how difficult it is for large businesses when a large HVAC unit goes out. In the week it takes to get parts, business can be devastated. The student purchased a large industrial-sized unit at a nominal cost from a company that was getting rid of it. He repaired the unit, and now rents it out for $35,000 per week.
“What he found out doing business research is that this type of business existed in the Southwest, but not in this part of the country,” Donavan said. “So he had limited competition being able to supply a company with a plug-in ready unit. He had more business than he knew what to do with. He was so successful he quit his day job.”
Another student came up with a new type of Mardi Gras “throw.”
“We did a quick test market using Survey Monkey and a couple small focus groups, and found nothing similar,” Donavan said. “Everyone loved the idea. It was inexpensive to produce, and when the class ended, she had market research, a manufacturer and a business plan. It was a fun concept that she can probably make a lot of money at.”
Another student was his friend, Judge James Bell, who wrote a novel on a legal defense involving a hypothetical vampire. While that sounds a bit unusual, the book rose to number three in its category on Amazon.com.
“He has been very successful with it, and is writing a second book,” Donavan said.
In addition to a short and longer course on entrepreneurship, Donavan also teaches a course on becoming a better board member of a nonprofit organization.
Nola K. Gibson, Ph.D., director of the Department of Continuing Education at Millsaps College, said the community enrichment program at Millsaps in existence since 1972 is the largest program of its kind in the metro area. The program averages 1,095 students per year.
“We offer three series a year, fall, winter and spring, and we try to stay on the cutting edge of new course ideas while continuing to offer the most popular courses,” Gibson said. “Ideas for new classes come from requests, current trends, and from contacts with other program directors around the nation through the Learning Resources Network (LERN).
From attending many LERN conferences in the U.S. and Canada, Gibson has learned that the extensive offering of the Millsaps Community Enrichment Series is almost unheard of for a small, private, liberal arts college.
“Over the years, we have heard from many participants about how such classes have led to a career change and made a difference in one’s life,” she said.
One popular business-related courses is, “Introduction to Social Media and Content Strategy,” taught by Sophie Wolf, marketing coordinator at Millsaps.
“Businesses are quickly learning that social media is a very important tool to communicate with customers and constituents,” Wolf said. “To thrive these days, businesses and professionals have to be their own self-promoters. In my classes there has been a wide variety of industries represented – restaurants, authors, government entities, non-profits and even the trucking industry. While there is time to discuss various social media platforms in my course, students also learn tips and tricks about photography, apps and content strategy. Students go out into the field and apply their photography skills and work together to see why some photos work and others might not be best. I hope participants come away with a well-rounded view of social media and a better understanding of what may or may not work for their particular business.”
Ryan Patrick at the Pizza Shack said the social media course helped them rethink the way they do things in social media.
“Since taking the course, we have increased the number of people that manage our social media sites, which allows us to follow up and be responsive to customers right away,” Patrick said. “The course helped us to identify potential problems and change the way we use social media.”
In addition to the instructors mentioned above, other staff for the enrichment program are Bev Humphreys, program coordinator, and April Maxwell, program assistant
A full description of all the courses offered is available on the website.www.millsaps.edu/conted.