Economics major discovers her entrepreneurial spirit through scholars and interns program

by | Sep 7, 2016

Meagan Burwell spent the summer researching the feasibility of kitchen incubator and urban farm development.

Meagan Burwell was one of three UMSL students to take part in the University of Missouri System’s Entrepreneurial Scholars & Interns program. (Photo by August Jennewein)

Imagine an urban farm sprouting in the Cortex district in midtown St. Louis.

There’s office space and a job training facility, a childcare center and apartments, all stacked together as part of a broader development.

In the middle, on the ground floor, is a kitchen incubator that could help food entrepreneurs cultivate businesses like food trucks and restaurants that turn harvested crops into delicious dishes consumed by people throughout the neighborhood and beyond.

Meagan Burwell, a junior economics major at the University of Missouri–St. Louis, spent much of her summer researching the feasibility of just such a project at the Cambridge Innovation Community at the Center for Emerging Technologies while taking part in the University of Missouri System’s Entrepreneurial Scholars & Interns program.

She joined UMSL seniors Kevin Ly, who’s majoring in information systems, and Dallas Selle, who’s pursuing a degree in international business, among the 17 students from the system’s four campuses to participate in the program. It aims, through a 10-week paid internship, to provide students opportunities to begin work on their own startup companies or work alongside entrepreneurs in new venture companies around Missouri.

“Going in, I didn’t really consider myself an entrepreneurial spirit or anything,” said Burwell, a Curators’ Scholarship recipient. “I was just looking for real-world experience.”

She was perusing the Pierre Laclede Honors College newsletter when she came across information about the program and applied.

Burwell, who grew up in Florissant, Missouri, ultimately was accepted, but she didn’t begin the program with an entrepreneurial idea already in hand. Rather, she started searching for an opportunity to work with a startup in the realm of sustainability.

That’s long been an area of interest for Burwell, who is minoring in environmental studies. She thinks it grew out of her decision to become vegetarian as an eighth grader after seeing a peta2 video. After continual self-education, she has since gone vegan.

While looking for an internship opportunity, Burwell came across an app in development called Sprouthood, aiming to help connect farmers and gardeners to people in the local food system. She got in touch with its co-founder Ryan Albritton.

It turned out that Albritton’s app had been put on hold, but he was working at CIC@CET, and he suggested she could join him in researching the viability of a kitchen incubator and urban farm.

Burwell looked at similar developments around the country and reached out with numerous emails to learn more about best practices and normal revenue and cost structure. She built spreadsheets detailing those figures.

“How much is it to build a commercial kitchen that’s certified? What are some financial projections as far as what we would charge people to access it and how many businesses would we need running out of it to break even and make a profit and that kind of stuff?” Albritton said of some of the questions Burwell was trying to answer.

He said he shared with her a proposal he had crafted while studying at Washington University in St. Louis to use as a template for her research.

“The way my schedule was at the time, I was not able to be as hands-on as I originally had wanted,” Albritton said. “But it ended up being just fine because she ran with it. We had regular check-ins, and other than that, she kind of just did her thing and did it really well.”

That doesn’t surprise Susan K. Feigenbaum, a Curators’ Distinguished Teaching Professor in the Department of Economics, for whom Burwell is now working as a teaching assistant.

“Meagan is a very serious thinker,” Feigenbaum said. “She’s very thoughtful. She looks for the overriding principles and is always striving to see the forest from the trees. Having said that, she’s very detail-oriented and is an incredibly inquisitive person.”

Students taking part in the Entrepreneurial Scholars & Interns program are also required to complete coursework related to entrepreneurship, which initially seemed strange to Burwell.

“If you look at a lot of entrepreneurs, they didn’t even study business,” she said. “It’s more like the personality of an entrepreneur and the traits.

“Of course, knowing how to do accounting and understanding marketing or the business world helps.”

Burwell, who is continuing to take entrepreneurial courses, said her experiences over the summer have made her more comfortable operating in the business world. She’s been more confident connecting with entrepreneurs when stopping into St. Louis Venture Café gatherings held at the @4240 building on Duncan Avenue.

She still doesn’t know what she will do after graduating from UMSL or if she will one day start a business of her own.

“I don’t just want to create another thing because there’s so much stuff in this world. I think over-consumption and waste is a big problem in our society,” Burwell said. “I want to figure out how to create a service or a product that is really valuable. Now I feel capable of doing something if I want to start a business, but I’m also thinking I might do something more like internal innovation rather than creating a whole new product.”

The UMSL Experience

Steve Walentik

Steve Walentik

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