Virginia’s Young Entrepreneurs

These business-minded students are making waves, in and out of the classroom.

(Bill Tiernan via The Virginian-Pilot)

Four years ago, when Erica Sullivan Feggeler learned that her mother had been diagnosed with skin cancer, the Virginia Tech (VT) senior panicked. Then she decided to do something about it. Feggeler began brainstorming, rallying some savvy peers to help create Low Ultraviolet™ (L.U.V.), a line of skin-protecting clothing. In need of seed money and guidance to get her UPF 50+ garments off the ground, Feggeler took a chance, entering the VT Apex Center for Entrepreneurs’ annual Entrepreneur Challenge, with $40,000 in prize money up for grabs. Her business concept won the “fan favorite” award and, today, Feggeler is based in Washington, D.C., running L.U.V. with a fellow Tech grad. 

Taking Care of Business Education

Feggeler’s success is not uncommon at Virginia Tech, where the school’s Apex Center serves thousands of bright minds. Founded in 2014, the Center served 100 students in its first year, and it’s grown steadily ever since. Located in downtown Blacksburg, the Apex Center guides students from all majors through myriad start-up steps—from product development and testing, to web design, distribution, and investor relations.  

“Just like athletes have the practice field and film room to review plays, we’re the practice field for entrepreneurship at Virginia Tech,” says Derick Maggard, the Executive Director of the Apex Center. “We have students building companies on blockchain that allow athletes to engage communities and monetize their name and likeness; we have a really cool company that is building an energy harvesting platform,” says Maggard, naming just a few of the center’s emerging start-ups. 

So far, the Center has helped students from 94 majors—from English to engineering and beyond—connect with real-world entrepreneurs through an advisory board that includes Pat Matthews, CEO and founder of Active Capital; Nelson Chu, managing director of Kinetic Ventures; and Kelli Furrer, a regional vice president at Dell Technologies. These business leaders have taken risks, weathering failures as well as successes, and they’re willing to share the lessons they’ve learned with the next generation. 

Nurturing Alumni

At the University of Virginia (UVA), the Galant Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship plays a similar role. “We work at the intersection of critical thinking and creativity,” says Eric Martin, the Center’s founder. One popular coding program, Forge, includes a 12-week internship with a big name in software engineering, digital marketing, or data science—an experience that often leads to a job offer.   

UVA also offers a Shark Tank-type pitch competition to connect fledgling student business ventures with potential investors. Entrants vie for the chance to win real capital. In 2021, Meg Pryde, a UVA Darden School of Business grad student was awarded $175,000 for Brandefy, a community-based app and beauty brand that bypasses luxury cosmetic pricing markups, helping customers find similarly performing products for less money. Ten years ago, Tommy Nichols, the CEO of Alloy, a New York-based identity verification engine for banks and financial services companies, was a competitor. Today, Alloy is a tech-world triumph, with a valuation of $1.55 billion. 

The Galant Center nurtures UVA graduates as well. With its Reboot Camp, Martin says, “we work with alumni who want to revisit education to learn more on a particular topic.” The idea is to provide lifelong learning for entrepreneurs throughout their careers. 

Getting Crunchy in the Classroom

At the University of Richmond, a year-long Bench Top Innovations course, launched last year, invites students to develop a packaged food product. The course, co-taught by Joel Mier, Robins School of Business lecturer of marketing, and Shane Emmett, the former CEO of Health Warrior bars, divides students into four teams for the challenge. Once one of the four products is selected, the entire class works together to bring it to market. 

Last year, Daniel Wolfeiler’s idea took the prize. The winning concept? Absurd Snacks, a nut-free healthy snack high in protein. As someone with a nut allergy, Wolfeiler knew firsthand how frustrating it could be to find a filling bite that was also safe. His savory bean snack was the solution.  

It could have ended there—as a theory tested in a safe classroom environment. But classmates Grace Mittl and Eli Bank wanted to see if Absurd Snacks also had legs off campus. “We entered a wind down agreement with the school,” Mittl says, “Then Eli and I transferred the intellectual property to our own business entity.” 

Today they’re the owners and operators of Absurd Snacks, a food start-up now sold at Libbie Market, ShoreDog Café, Good Foods Grocery, and other Richmond-area shops. The plan for 2023 is to roll out a rebrand, with fresh packaging and new retail outlets. “It’s been incredible. How else could we be graduates and have our own business?” says Mittl.

With only two full-time employees, Mittl and Bank are learning how to juggle small business ownership—from licensing and legal issues to sending promotional press releases. “We know where our path to growth is,” Bank says. “We’ve had amazing growth so far. I think it’s put us in a position to be successful going forward.” 

Star Baker

Of course, for some young business owners, no classroom is necessary. Ke’Nyzjah Ferebee, a Norfolk 17-year-old and junior at Western Branch High School, represents the next generation of small business owners doing it on their own. During the pandemic, Ferebee started her cake and cupcake business, Kayke Bakery. 

“I’ve always wanted to own my own business,” Ferebee says. “When I was seven, I Googled ‘how to make money.’ It was all the same answers, like ‘mow your neighbor’s yard’ or ‘babysit.’” Ferebee had bigger ideas. At nine, she began baking with her mom, and it was love at first batch. 

Today, with dozens of clients, Ferebee wakes at 3:00 a.m. to stir up the day’s orders. She admits it’s challenging to be a full-time student while running her own business, but she makes a point of finishing her schoolwork during the day and put in kitchen time during after-school hours. “My goal is just to keep expanding and possibly start my own shop,” she says. That and college. She’s considering Christopher Newport University. In the meantime, Ferebee’s entrepreneurial spirit continues to shine. 

This article originally appeared in the April 2023 issue.

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