published Sunday, August 14th, 2011

Kennedy: College kids learn to embrace risk

The other day a co-worker arrived at my desk beaming.

"I have to tell somebody this," he said, before revealing that his son, a recent college graduate, had just landed a good job with a local company.

"Wow," I said. "That's really great news."

Even though my sons are young, ages 4 and 9, I wonder if they will still be eating Cheetos and watching "Swamp People" in my living room when they're 30.

What used to be a straight path to the middle class -- attend college, graduate, get a good job -- has become a rocky road.

The New York Times reported that 22 percent of young adults who graduated from college in 2009 were still out of work a year later. Only 55 percent of last year's college graduates are working in jobs that require a college degree, according to the newspaper.

I've read that more college students aren't waiting for lightning to strike on the hiring front. The hot new major on some college campuses is entrepreneurship, which teaches the art of creating your own job.

I talked to a student at Belmont University in Nashville this week who is doing just that.

Jonathan Murrell, a 21-year-old rising junior, has started an online grocery store called Mydormfood.com, a website that lets college students (or their parents) order snacks and toiletry items to be shipped directly to college campuses.

Murrell said the idea came to him last November.

"I picked up a friend from school, and she was eating a power bar that cost $3 (from an on-campus coffee shop)," he said. "A lot of my friends don't have cars, so they buy groceries on campus."

Murrell did some quick math and realized that he could buy bulk cereal, snacks, soft drinks, toothpaste and shampoo at Costco and Sam's Club and ship them to college students for less than many of them were paying for the same items at on-campus markets.

Murrell rehearsed the idea with one of his professors at Belmont, and signed up his brother James, a student at cross-town Lipscomb University, and Bruno Silva, a friend at Belmont, to help him experiment with the business model.

Murrell put up shelves in an empty bedroom in his parents' home and began filling them with candy bars and potato chips. At the peak, he had 300 different items in inventory, he said.

Each of the three Mydormfood.com partners chipped in $2,000, and the trio also won $5,500 in seed money from business-idea competitions at Belmont and Lipscomb.

The business has yet to reach critical mass -- a short-term goal is to ship at least 10 boxes a day -- but the guys are learning how to build a company on a shoestring budget.

The first few weeks of operation, the group filled 60 online orders. They realized about a third were being placed by parents, so they retooled their marketing efforts to emphasize online gift-card purchases.

In the spring, they launched a redesigned website for $520 that has the polish of a $10,000 professional job. For marketing, the team uses inexpensive Web ads on Google and Facebook.

They plan to hand out fliers this week to parents dropping off their kids on Nashville's college campuses. Recruiting sales reps at other schools is also under way, Murrell said.

Murrell said he is struck by the number of college students who are afraid to take a chance on themselves.

"In one of our classes, I was shocked at how many [students] wanted jobs with guarantees. They don't understand risk and reward," he said.

"I've never intended to have a real job," he said. "I like having control of my time."

If there's a saving grace to the Great Recession, maybe it's that it will give birth to a new generation of bold American entrepreneurs.

After all: Risk is here to stay, and it can smell fear.

about Mark Kennedy...

Mark Kennedy is a Times Free Press columnist and editor. He writes the "LIfe Stories" human interest column for the City section and the "Family Life" column for the Life section. He also writes an automotive column, “Test Drive,” for the Business section. For 13 years, Kennedy was features editor of the newspaper, and before that he was the newspaper’s first Sunday editor. The Times Free Press Life section won the state press award for ...

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