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Tackling uncertainty with entrepreneurship

Kaitlin Lutz on a construction site. Lutz was the first woman soloist to win UGA’s Idea Accelerator Program for her business idea: Sparke Women, a program that trains and equips women with skills for jobs in the construction industry. (Dorothy Kozlowski/UGA file photo)

Two summer programs aim to equip students with entrepreneurial skills

Like a lot of entrepreneurs these days, Kaitlin Lutz is paying attention as new problems arise­—not necessarily in terms of how those problems might derail her young company NewCrew, but how she might find an opportunity to deliver a solution.

Lutz, a recent graduate of the University of Georgia, started NewCrew and the nonprofit Sparke Women as a student. Both startups aim to fix shortages of skilled and qualified labor in construction: NewCrew by matching existing skilled workers with construction companies; Sparke Women by equipping women for careers in construction.

For now, Lutz has noticed a slowdown in construction hiring, but she believes it will pick up soon. And when it does, she’ll be ready. “I think periods of uncertainty are really where an entrepreneur can thrive,” Lutz said. “Entrepreneurship is all about adapting to change. You see opportunities where others don’t.”

That kind of solutions-based mentality is something Lutz picked up as a UGA student, particularly through a pair of programs, the Idea Accelerator and Summer Launch, offered through a partnership between the UGA Entrepreneurship Program and ATDC. Both programs are underway this summer, although in a virtual format. They give students a valuable summer learning opportunity—especially during a time when many in-person opportunities have evaporated with the COVID-19 pandemic.

Jim Flannery, a lecturer in the Terry College of Business and a leader in Athens’ entrepreneurship community, is c0-leading both programs with Cali Brutz and Chris Hamilton.

Flannery, like Lutz, sees opportunity during this unstable period. After all, some of the country’s strongest companies (Hewlett-Packard, General Motors, Microsoft and Instagram, to name a few) arose during periods of financial distress.

Flannery is clear-eyed about the stress and uncertainty of being an entrepreneur right now. “I have a lot of friends and mentors who are going through probably the worst part of their lives right now,” he said. But he believes those who dive in and adapt will come out “smarter and stronger.”

“I think that there’s a golden opportunity in front of us to help some of these students figure out a company that they can run for the next 50 years,” Flannery said.

The Idea Accelerator is for students who have a business idea, and they want to know if it’s worth pursuing. Lutz, who won the Idea Accelerator pitch competition in 2019, said the program taught her how to focus on problem-solving rather than just coming up with a novel idea. The same is true for Kendra Garcia, who won the competition last fall as a freshman with an idea to pair tattoo-seeking customers with customized designs and professional artists to match their style.

Kendra Garcia, founder of Eye Drool Designs and a student in UGA’s College of Engineering, pitches her company to a panel of judges during the UGA Idea Accelerator Demo Day pitch competition at Studio 225 on Nov. 11. Garcia and her company won the $5,000 top prize. (Photo by Matt Hardy)

While she didn’t come to UGA thinking she was going to be owning a business as a student, the experience of Idea Accelerator and the $5,000 prize money helped launch Eye Drool Designs. The company helps customers avoid “regrettable tattoo designs.”

As you might imagine, business hasn’t been booming lately. The COVID-19 pandemic temporarily shuttered the doors of tattoos artists across Athens and the nation. Those that have reopened are taking heightened precautions and fewer customers.

For Garcia, a rising second-year engineering student at UGA, the challenges are shaking the viability of her fledgling business. She’s looking to the Summer Launch program to help her tackle some of these business challenges.

The Summer Launch, a follow-up program to Idea Accelerator, is for students who have already developed a strong business idea. This program takes students through the steps of getting their businesses off the ground. Students get $5,000 upfront to grow their business. They can win an additional $5,000 if they win the program’s pitch competition. This summer, ideas range from novel food concepts, like a new type of candy, to platforms that connect landscape designers to homeowners.

Like the other students in the program, Garcia is looking to build her business skills, but also how to adapt to a rapidly changing landscape.

“It’s been very eye-opening learning how fast your business has to evolve and grow and change,” she said. “I’ve been thinking of a way to keep tattoo parlors generating revenue by creating tattoo designs for their customers.” Ones that they can hang on to for when they feel safe to go into the parlor.

Flannery hopes to impart to students that entrepreneurship is not scary.

“Entrepreneurship is as logical a choice as getting a job,” he said. “It isn’t about taking massive risk, it’s about learning to de-risk things that seem scary. Now more than ever, it’s important for people to feel like they have the power and ability to go start something.