This cautionary note has echoed through the ears of college students from time immemorial. The eye rolls it tends to elicit, however, are particularly well deserved these days because the “real” world has arrived at Millikin. Thanks to Millikin’s thriving learning laboratories – experiments in entrepreneurship – more and more students are gaining real-world experience in running a business long before they don cap and gown. As a publishing entrepreneur himself, Dr. Randy Brooks, dean of the college of arts and sciences/professor of English, has spent more than 30 years as an editor and publisher of haiku poetry. In the past, he would share this publishing experience by asking one or two students each semester to intern with his company, Brooks Books. Over in the art department, his friend and colleague, Ed Walker ’85, associate professor of art, was doing much the same thing as he published catalogs to accompany art exhibitions at Millikin.
The two joined forces to launch a sustainable, student-operated publishing company. And thus Bronze Man Books was born in 2006 – and continues to bring classroom theory to life today. “We thought, ‘Why don’t we bring this together and create a course and a student-run publishing business?’” says Brooks, who guides the writing and publishing side of the business, while Walker directs the graphic design. Since then, the “Art of Publishing,” a course co-taught by Brooks and Walker, has become a Millikin mainstay. Each semester, those enrolled in the course become members of the Bronze Man Books staff for that semester. Students make all managerial and operational decisions and are organized into three teams: editorial, design and marketing. Each team has a leader who serves on the company’s management team.
“Students can take the class as many times as they want,” says Brooks, always eager to see familiar faces return. “We joke that if someone does really well, they don’t get to move on.” Day-to-day operations give student staffers hands-on experience in the business of publishing and the art of bringing a book to market. “They learn all of the things required to move a book from the submission process into production – and then market it,” Brooks says. “We examine the story line and the editing of words, then get into the illustrations. We critique everything. Students have to think about how the book looks and feels to the reader and create a graphic design that grabs people.” Though organized as a nonprofit, this is a real business that offers students valuable life skills, Brooks says.
“Students develop professionalism and expertise in a given area – and some step into roles of leadership with positions like marketing director and lead editor,” says Brooks. The company’s current marketing director, Jackson Lewis, a senior English major, first learned about the company as a budding author. “Winter Hearts,” a collection of Lewis’ tanka poetry, was published in 2012 by Bronze Man Books. “I first saw Bronze Man Books from the author’s side. The editorial staff really helped me, and I was pleased with the experience,” says Lewis. After the positive experience he had with Bronze Man Books as a client, Lewis was inspired to enroll in the Art of Publishing class to gain more publishing experience.
As marketing director, Lewis and his team help spread the word about new books through advertising, news releases, press kits and public events. The leadership role has honed Lewis’ skills in managing time, resources and people. Through experience, he has learned the fine art of delegating and navigating issues with printers or authors. “I’ve learned great lessons in professionalism,” says Lewis. As an author himself, he has a special appreciation for the delicate nature of the relationship between publisher and writer. “Authors are very attached to their work. You have to be very careful how you handle their baby,” says Lewis. That being said, “every author you work with is different, so flexibility is key.” And so is patience. Student staffers at Bronze Man Books quickly learn that the world of publishing tends to move at a snail’s pace measured in years, rather than weeks or months. “Publishing involves a painstaking attention to detail. It’s not fast and quick, and the reality of that is always surprising to students,” says Brooks. “It’s a long-term process, and it takes a lot of collaboration and cooperation if you’re really after quality.”
And to assume that a student-run business might skimp on quality would be a mistake. In fact, quality is at the core of the Bronze Man Books company mission: to publish books that integrate high-quality design and meaningful content. Their mission is illustrated in the company’s four major lines of publishing: art exhibition catalogs; chapbooks, small collections of poetry or drama by a single author; trade paperbacks; and children’s books. Last November, the publishing house released its fourth children’s book: “Am I Like My Daddy?” by Marcy Wood Blesy ’94 and illustrated by Amy Kuhl Cox ’98 (see related article). “It’s about grieving and dealing with the loss of a parent,” says Brooks. “We’re very excited about this book. It took two years to develop.” Bronze Man Books caters to first-time authors like Blesy; most have some kind of connection to Millikin as students, faculty or alumni.
Bronze Man Books’ most recent author, Claudia Nichols Quigg ’75, is director of Baby TALK, columnist for the Decatur Herald & Review newspaper and an adjunct MU faculty member for early childhood education. In March, the company released a new paperback compilation of Quigg’s columns: “Let’s Talk Kids: Becoming a Family” (see related article). The book – the first of a series of three – targets couples who are contemplating becoming parents. With the help of student editors at Bronze Man Books, the book series incorporates Quigg’s columns on parenting with student photography to create a product designed to encourage parental reflection. The team at Bronze Man Books chooses projects carefully, always with an eye on the market. “All of our books are profitable or breakeven,” says Brooks. “I think profit should be a part of a student-run enterprise. We’ve been in the black because we’re very careful. We only publish books we believe will sell.” Their biggest seller to date is the “Millikin University Haiku Anthology,” featuring the best of a decade of poetry by Millikin students. As faculty advisers, Walker and Brooks help set goals and deadlines, while providing guidance and continuity as staff members change from semester to semester.
Whenever possible, Bronze Man Books capitalizes on the Millikin network by partnering with other student-run ventures. For example, an audio version of its first children’s book, “Ants in the Bandroom,” written and illustrated by Laura Podeschi ’06, was produced in collaboration with First Step Records, Millikin’s oldest student-run business. The CD features an original score by Randall Reyman, Millikin’s director of jazz activities, and the story is read by Laura Ledford, dean of the College of Fine Arts. In addition, books published by Bronze Man Books, as well as products from other student-run businesses, are sold in Blue Connection, Millikin’s student-run art gallery. Public readings and other events are often held there, as well. “We try to support each other,” says Brooks. Bronze Man Books is just one of many opportunities students have to engage in performance learning, which has become a hallmark of a Millikin education.
Millikin’s Center for Entrepreneurship, launched in 1998, is the driving force behind most Big Blue student-run businesses. It was followed by the debut of its Arts & Entrepreneurship program, an initiative that includes a series of classes and hands-on learning opportunities in student-run businesses. The journey begins with the Art of Entrepreneurship class, where students are tasked with starting their own mini-business. Students must first develop a business model and pitch their idea to “lenders” for a start-up loan of up to $50. They then must sell their product – such as T-shirt designs, hair accessories, jewelry or music lessons – and pay back their lenders. “It helps students learn how to recognize opportunities and marshal the resources they need,” says William “B.J.” Warren ’07/MBA ’10, Arts and Entrepreneurship lecturer and manager of Blue Connection. “It’s becoming very clear that students are going to have to create careers for themselves. This class gives students the opportunity to explore self-employment as a viable career option.” Unlike other universities, Millikin has committed to a campus-wide emphasis on entrepreneurial education, casting its net far beyond the Tabor School of Business. The Arts & Entrepreneurship program attracts students from diverse disciplines, from music to management. This boundary-breaking approach helps teach the value of teamwork. “Some students may be brilliant illustrators, but not great writers,” says Brooks. “A multidisciplinary approach helps students appreciate what different people bring to the table.” The follow-up Art of Entrepreneurship class emphasizes business growth by placing students in one of Millikin’s several student-run businesses:
BLUE SATELLITE PRESS:
Studentscreate limited edition letterpress poetry broadsides by hand, using a printing process developed centuries ago.
Millikin students operate a retail art gallery showcasing paintings, ceramics, photography, jewelry and other affordable artwork by students, faculty, alumni and friends of Millikin.
FIRST STEP RECORDS:
Millikin’s student-run record label and music publishing company features traditional and contemporary music by students, faculty or alumni. Blue Box Records features music by off-campus performers.
PIPE DREAMS STUDIO THEATRE:
Launched as a student-run business in 2010, Pipe Dreams is a theatre company producing 21st century works by Millikin students, faculty, alumni and others.
CARRIAGE HOUSE PRESS:
Makingits debut in 2009 at the carriage house on the grounds of the historic James Millikin Homestead, Carriage House Press features Decatur’s only fine-art printing press. This student-run venture produces hand-pulled, limited edition monoprints, etchings and relief prints on a unique hand-built German etching press.
All of Millikin’s student-run ventures are grounded in an academic discipline, with a profit and mission-driven focus. Faculty serve as coaches and mentors, but students are the decision-makers. As such, they are held accountable for meeting the financial and business goals that they set. “We ask a lot of students and hold them accountable,” says Warren. “They’ll have a stronger learning experience when they act and reflect on their own decisions and mistakes.” The surprising level of responsibility is not always welcomed by students accustomed to a traditional classroom environment, where expectations are explicit and the path from Point A to Point B is clearly marked. “Students don’t always embrace the responsibility at first – the level of risk makes it hard for them,” says Warren. “In the case of student-run ventures, there is no right answer and they’re dealing with ambiguity – it’s uncomfortable.” In contrast to the approach used at many universities, each of Millikin’s student-run ventures is strategically built as a course. That means that “learning outcomes are assessed by a faculty mentor,” says Warren. “It adds to the education in an intentional way.”
These learning laboratories embody the university’s brand of performance learning by allowing students to put theoretical concepts into practice in a real business setting or even start their careers before they leave Millikin. “Students learn the discipline by doing it. At Bronze Man Books, students are learning to be critical now – it’s not something they have to learn after graduation,” says Brooks. “They are making a book better than it was when it came to them. They’re not just performing for the teacher anymore; they’re performing for the public. The stakes are higher.” The stakes may be higher, but so is the payoff. “Millikin is all about learning by doing – and it’s been phenomenal for me,” says Jackson Lewis. “The safety net is there in case you need it, so it doesn’t feel it has quite the pressure of work, but the commitment to quality is still there.” Still, in a competitive world economy, Millikin’s student-run businesses don’t coddle budding entrepreneurs.
“We put our students up against professionals in their field,” says Warren, who points to the retail space at Blue Connection as an example. There, student artwork is up against the work of national and international artists next door at the Madden Arts Center in downtown Decatur. Performance learning is even more critical considering how information and education are evolving. “The traditional model where you come to a higher institution to gain knowledge is very quickly disappearing,” Warren says. “It’s no longer good enough for us to bring on students and impart knowledge. Our emphasis has to be much more on practice.” This unique model of student ownership has earned Millikin a reputation as a leader in entrepreneurial education. Warren fields weekly inquiries from schools across the nation interested in learning how the Millikin model works. Institutions such as Hiram College, UNC Greensboro and Santa Fe Community College have already adapted Millikin’s model for their own student ventures.
In addition, the Arts & Entrepreneurship program was awarded Outstanding Specialty Entrepreneurship Program by the United States Association for Small Business and Entrepreneurship in January. In response to the growing level of interest, Millikin’s Center for Entrepreneurship has developed a two-day Entrepreneurship Across the Campus symposium featuring guest speakers and meetings with students from each of Millikin’s student-run ventures. The workshop also allows time for visiting faculty to develop their own courses and practice laboratories with guidance from Center for Entrepreneurship faculty and Entrepreneurship Fellows. The next symposium will take place on the Millikin campus during the next school year.
Following a visit to campus, Dr. David Cutler, artist, author and director of music entrepreneurship at the University of South Carolina, said: “I had the opportunity to visit Millikin University ... I was delighted to learn about their unique and (as far as I know) unprecedented approach to arts entrepreneurship.” It’s a sentiment that has been echoed by Fred Thompson on Inside Business, which filmed and aired a news story on Blue Connection, and John Eger of the Huffington Post who included Millikin’s Arts & Entrepreneurship Program in a listing of just four schools offering truly integrated arts degrees. With growing opportunities to get in the driver’s seat of a business, students are living James Millikin’s timeless vision to “embrace the practical side of learning along with the literary and classical.” And perhaps the most practical thing they learn is to believe in themselves. “This is not just a class but valuable job experience,” Lewis says. “I have the confidence to say in an interview, ‘I’ve done this before ... I can handle this.’ I feel very well prepared.”
Celeste Huttes '88 is a freelance writer specializing in corporate communications. She studied business and philosophy at millikin and holds a master’s degree in human resource management.