Jessica and Sean O’Toole loved to tinker with rare tropical fruit trees, even converting their Kansas lawn to what they call “Food, Not Lawn.”
“We replaced our little lawn with raised garden beds and had a dozen chickens.” When they moved to Florida, they kept collecting edible plants and began selling their fruits at local farmers markets, eventually starting a nursery called The Wild Guava on their 18 acres near Plant City.
“I was kind of in charge of the business part, but I didn’t really feel comfortable with it,” Jessica O’Toole said. Then she learned about a new one-semester entrepreneur certification offered by Hillsborough Community College and life has changed since she completed her course work, she said.
“The marketing class was really helpful for me because I had always associated marketing with advertising, but there is so much more to it than that. You have to think about the people you are trying to get your product to.”
HCC is now holding registration for a third semester of its Entrepreneur and Innovation Certificate Program. The semester includes four classes designed to help entrepreneurs launch a business or move it to the next level, said instructor Beth Kerly.
The college previously enrolled students for a two-semester certification, but many people just don’t have time to do two semesters’ worth of course work while working full time and trying to start a business, Kerly said. “We sat down and tried to work through the needs of our students. We surveyed 45,000 HCC students and found out they wanted a program, but in one semester.”
The courses include Entrepreneurship, Entrepreneurial Marketing and Sales, Accounting and Finance, and Small Business Management. The semester costs $1,700. Students must enroll as HCC students, then sign up for the classes on the school’s web site. These classes are offered only at the Dale Mabry campus.
Taking the entrepreneur certification changed everything for Patricia Hines, a veteran with an idea to build a business around an organic laundry detergent she developed for her sister, Rosena, who has allergies.
“She was quite shy and she just blossomed over the 16 weeks” of course work, Kerly said.
Hines agrees, though she admits her first day didn’t go too well, when she had to pitch her business idea to the class. “The first time was horrible, I’m not gonna lie. I wasn’t there yet.
“I didn’t know about how people would relate, didn’t know my customer base or marketing. They blew my mind every time I went to class. Every time, they taught me something new.
“Every week we had to talk to 10 customers, ask questions,” Hines said. “It was all about customer discovery and how to do surveys. We did surveys and went one by one to customers. I even went to Whole Foods,” a place she hopes to eventually sell her product.
For now, Hines is busy constructing her website and sending out free samples of her detergent for the business she calls La Bella Earth. She also learned how to research for her product and contact distributors certified by the U.S. Department of Agriculture to produce her detergent.
Other students are still in the process of validating their business ideas, Kerly said.
“These are the seeds” they get from the course work, Kerly said. “In five years, they will be the stories you will see about small businesses that are starting to scale. This is what is so unique about our program. The students find validation for their ideas and start their businesses.
“Most colleges pick up entrepreneurship at the point where a person already has something going,” Kerly said. “We help them get it going.”