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With all the hype about Blue Brew coffee shop, the most frequent question I’ve been getting is, “What is a student-run venture?”

Excellent question! But there's not really a simple answer.

It’s like a chemistry lab for learning entrepreneurship (with less broken glass and fewer explosions – on average, at least). Student-run ventures are credit-bearing classes in which students gain knowledge and practice of running a small business like a music label, an art gallery, a coffee shop, a performance venue, a technology consulting firm, a mobile recording studio, etc.

Millikin University has 14 student-run ventures that exist or are being formed. Oh, wait. Make that 15. See how fast this is happening?

It’s OK to be a bit confused about student-run ventures. There isn't a one-size-fits-all model. And because they are a learning laboratory, they stay with the university.

This is something I wish I had access to when I was in college. Getting to practice in real-time with real customers and have real risk and rewards – but not quite.

Then there are student-owned ventures, emphasis on owned. A number of Millikin students, especially those in the entrepreneurship program, come to campus with their own businesses already operating. A few off the top of my head are luxury, specialty pens, a dog-grooming business (which she purchased, didn't start) and a photography business.

But what about those of us who didn't get this opportunity in college and still want to start a business or practice running a business before taking on all the risk? How does one do that?

Two recommendations. Learn the numbers and the narratives.

Reading business cases are a great ways for people to learn about running or starting a business. They aren’t just for college classes anymore. In fact, my winter reading list includes 50 business cases on lean startup, corporate entrepreneurship and agile/scrum. Find them at They're free, and so far I have been fairly pleased. Although some of the links have been moved. They also are a little light on the numbers.

Some people are fortunate and learn about profit and loss statements, balance sheets, and cash flow statements through something called Open Book Management with an employer.

Owners and employees engage in conversations about the opportunities and challenges the business is experiencing, and how those play out from a financial perspective. Over time, people learn the narrative built with the numbers that becomes the story of the business. If you aren't fortunate enough to have an employer willing to share the books with you and have an open dialogue, the SEC has some excellent information available online.

Whether you want to go into the music industry, or technology services, or event planning, if you intend on owning a business in that space it is critical to understand both the numbers and the narrative. Start with what you might understand the best, but do not forget to bridge to the other.

I believe that is the beauty of the experience that students get to have in student-run ventures. They are building their own case study experience, and writing a narrative of numbers, even if it is just on a micro scale.

Julie Shields is the director of Millikin University's Center for Entrepreneurship.


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