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Carson-Newman Equips Entrepreneurs for Profit, Non-Profits, even Ministry

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Jody Barker holds the hands of several Puerto Asese children who are living at El Albergue (The Shelter). A dozen children have been granted refuge at the center wiithin a month of its New Year’s Day ribbon cutting.

Story by Mark Brown

Entrepreneurship is defined as activity associated with “organizing, managing and assuming risk of a business or enterprise.” While “entrepreneur” has been used for some time to depict economic adventurers following a distant muse, it can also describe those driven to help make life better for others on personal and even societal levels.

Carson-Newman College is rich with stories of student-adventurers who have pursued not distant musings, but rather a sense of calling to develop programs and opportunities that are making an impact locally as well as in a village on the shores of Lake Nicaragua.

In the midst of several empty storefronts just three blocks from campus is a coffee shop. It began as a “crazy idea” among business students but is now bringing a spark of hope to Jefferson City’s old business sector.  The students, members of Students in Free Enterprise (SIFE) pitched their support to their advisor, Spencer Jones, who with his wife Libby signed the note on a downtown Jefferson City building and now oversees The Creek. While the shop began life as something of a not-for-profit urban renewal project, the realities of business and their associated costs meant taking a more traditional approach. 

Jones says SIFE remains vital, but notes that the membership now primarily focuses on projects that simultaneously support the organization and the revitalization of the Historic Mossy Creek District, the official name of the old business quarter.

Jefferson City Mayor Mark Potts has credited the student group’s energy and innovation with being the spark that was needed to draw attention back to downtown. 

Jones concurs, noting “Students helped start this project. They had the original idea for an ice cream shop, they formed the non-profit and they approached me.”

The School of Business faculty member says his transition from SIFE advisor to owner-operator began when the opportunity well started to run dry. “I never had plans to be the owner, but we chose this route when there did not seem to be other options.”

While students originally intended to run the business on something of a volunteer basis, the idea faded rather quickly. 

“We have paid employees, including C-N students and people who attend other schools. This is not a free labor enterprise,” said Jones, who added the undertaking has had “definite benefits” for SIFE participants. 

“They’ve gotten their hands dirty, seen the magnitude of what it takes to run a business and, even more, have seen the effort and energy it takes to try and revitalize a business district.  One of the most important things they are learning is planning and the need for it.  It’s a major lesson, as is the value of communicating well.  They have seen the importance of those elements to success.”

C-N Human Services graduate Jessica Spencer had no idea when she began Dream Catchers that what she was doing has a name – social entrepreneurship.

What began as a club just one year ago blossomed into a service organization that has been honored at the institutional, regional and national level. Beyond awards, Spencer says she has seen it change lives of college friends and people they served.

In one semester alone, the group fulfilled nine requests, including providing books to an avid reader, staging a sock-hop, establishing a courtyard flower garden, and even carrying three residents to an area wrestling match. Beyond event planning, Spencer raised funds and ultimately generated some $3000 to support the semester’s projects and leave a starting budget for those who followed her. 

Within months of Dream Catcher’s establishment, honors poured in. Life Care of Jefferson City gave it the local Volunteer Group of the Year Award. C-N School of Social Sciences honored the organization with the William Wilberforce Social Entrepreneurship Prize. And in the fall, Spencer was feted by Life Care Centers of America with its National Group Volunteer Award, which encompasses some 220 nursing, post-acute and Alzheimer’s centers in 28 states.

“These students at Carson-Newman College are truly inspirational,” said Life Care President Beecher Hunter. “While still young and seeking ways to fulfill their own dreams, they are making memorable moments for those who are elderly. Their deeds demonstrate friendship and compassion.”

Spencer credits C-N with nurturing her aspirations.

“Going to a good Christian college – and especially the classes I had – gave me both the knowledge and the drive to start Dream Catchers. And, if it were not for Dream Catchers, I would not have the job I have now,” smiles the activities director for Life Care of Cleveland.

Jody Barker entered C-N as an Honors Program student fully aware that she wanted to develop a capstone project that mattered, one that made a difference.  She decided to build a house that would provide a shelter for orphaned and neglected children in Granada, Nicaragua. 

“I didn’t want to do something I saw as superficial; I wanted to do more than matching furniture and colors,” Barker says.

The daughter of a couple who splits their time between running a construction company in Kingsport and fostering mission work in the Latin America country, the C-N senior knows well the contradiction of Lake Nicaragua’s splendor and the crushing poverty experienced by many who live on it. One of the ten largest lakes in the Americas, it includes some 400 islands, many of which are smaller than a basketball court. 

She wrote and presented a prospectus for the Honors Council’s review that included how she planned to serve her clients, a pastor and his wife who help provide for some 30 kids with a host of physical, spiritual and emotional needs.  She included a budget of between $8000 and $10,000, noted that she had already determined the best building site of three possibilities, and explained that hiring a construction company was necessary given the lack of skilled volunteers. 

The consumer science major with an interior design emphasis described that the space would be inhabited by children from five years old to 16 and explained that most would live there during school days and then return home on weekends.  She wrote that six children from one family have a host of genetic issues, some of which are attributed to incestuous rape.  Other needs include medical care and rampant malnutrition. 

Barker’s presentation met the council’s approval with one condition -- that she not build the structure.  Members told her a design and accompanying plan for completing it would suffice – something that the student says she knew would not be enough for what she was feeling. 

“It was like there’s a line where you’re doing it for an Honors project, and then a line where you’re doing it for the kids,” she said. “But it was really a matter of God saying, ‘I want this done and you’re the instrument to build it.’” 

The unexpected and generous $20,000 gift, from a small church that had experienced a windfall, was a double blessing; the timing was great and it had become clear that costs would be twice what had been expected. 

On January 1, as most were celebrating the new year in general, Jody Barker took scissors and cut a ribbon on El Albergue (The Shelter) and celebrated that a new year would bring a new lease on life to several children.  Within a month, El Albergue is home to 12 kids, which leaves room for growth in the coming months.

The project has indeed been a capstone experience, and just what Barker hoped college would be. 

“If what you’re looking for is how much money you’ll make, then college is a contradiction because it’s like you have to get a good job to pay off your debt.  But, if you go to a school that’s going to make you ask really hard questions and that’s going to challenge you, well, then it’s worth it.  And that is what Carson-Newman has done for me; my overall education has taught me to be a good designer.” 

That so many students gravitate toward developing such innovative projects is a testimony to the institution’s ethos, asserts longtime psychology professor and former administrator Dr. Larry Osborne. The director of C-N’s Social Entrepreneurship program, Osborne has helped developed a new graduate degree that, pending accrediting agency approval, will open in the fall. 

The degree, the Masters of Arts in Applied Social Justice, will provide new avenues for those who want to work in either non-profit of social ministry work. 

“Carson-Newman has always been fertile ground for mission-minded people and those going into social service fields,” asserts Osborne.  “What we are trying to do is more than help them (students) get a job, but to actually go out there and create their own programs and create conditions that change root causes of problems, including those that foster poverty and their associated ills.” 

The degree will offer two tracks. Those who pursue social entrepreneurship will take some courses from the School of Business and should be equipped to help develop economic opportunities to help fight poverty.   Those interested in the humanities or social science may choose to pursue the Christian community development option designed for faith-based organizational work. 

Osborne note that C-N’s undergraduate major in social entrepreneurship is offered as a companion program to a student’s primary career interest or academic discipline, such as religion, business, psychology or foreign language. “It’s designed to help them work in the non-profit sector or help prepare them for developing a program to serve others,” he said. 

For more information about Carson-Newman, or to consider ways to help make life better for others, call 1-800-678-9061 or email admitme@cn.edu.

For media inquiries, visit the University Relations page.

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