DeNae Howard grows her cookie business while earning accounting degree at UMSL

by | May 22, 2023

Howard has been applying lessons she's learned in accounting and entrepreneurship to strengthen her cookie business, NaeAna's Cookies.
Young black woman and cookie makers stands in industrial kitchen wearing an apron, with her cookies on the counter.

DeNae Howard graduated with a bachelor’s degree in accounting and is applying what she learned to her cookie business, NaeAna’s Cookies, which she operates out of her family’s barbecue restaurant, Gobble Stop Smokehouse. (Photo by Derik Holtman)

Even in middle school, DeNae Howard knew she wanted her own business. The entrepreneurial gene runs in her family, as her father was a business owner. She started out selling snacks to her classmates and then teamed up with a friend to sell wallets and pins made out of duct tape. They called their business Duck-A-Rama.

Howard carried that business-minded spirit into 2016 when she and her sister, De’Ana, took over their father’s cookie business, NaeAna’s Cookies, which he’d named after both his daughters. To date, there are 12 varieties of cookies that are sold out of Gobble Stop Smokehouse, the family’s barbecue restaurant in Creve Coeur, Missouri.

Howard went to college to strengthen her business acumen, graduating last weekend with a bachelor’s degree in accounting from the University of Missouri–St. Louis.

She first chose UMSL out of financial practicality. After enrolling, she realized the university had much more to offer than affordability.

“It was amazing,” Howard said, reflecting on her time at UMSL. “A couple of people I went to high school with are here. The community was great. I learned a lot. It was just a great experience.”

Howard became interested in accounting after her uncle, an accountant at NASA, talked with her about his career. In high school, she seized the opportunity to participate in the Accounting Career Awareness Program, presented by the National Association of Black Accountants and held on the UMSL campus. After completing the program, she thought accounting was something she’d be good at.

Along with managing her cookie business, Howard is also working in an internship she started in January with CliftonLarsonAllen, the eighth-largest accounting firm in the United States. She got the opportunity through UMSL’s Accountants’ Networking Night/Meet the Firms event last September.

“I started during a busy season,” she said. “I got a little bit of experience in taxes and auditing but mostly taxes, working with different kinds of businesses. They have a retail sector, manufacturing and health care. I haven’t experienced all of the sectors yet – mostly retail. I’ve been learning through the different systems on how to do their taxes. So, it’s been a great experience.”

Howard has been applying what she’s learned in her internship as well as in the accounting program at UMSL to her cookie business. The capstone course in entrepreneurship she took with Michael Kehoe, an assistant teaching professor in the College of Business Administration, was particularly helpful.

“The first half of the semester, he gave us different types of topics, and then we just applied that to our business,” Howard said. “The second half, we actually got the opportunity to get a mentor who is working in the field our businesses are in. I worked with Jeff Berry of Dot Foods. He’s helped me a lot with actually mapping out cost, looking at the different areas to scale and things of that nature. He’s been a big help.”

Barry, the innovation director at Dot Foods, feels confident Howard will do well in business.

“DeNae has a quiet tenacity that allows her to think big while staying grounded at the same time,” Barry said. “She’s willing to learn, do the hard work and chase her dreams. I have no doubt that her road ahead is paved with success.”

Kehoe was impressed with Howard as well.

“DeNae was an exemplary student and a joy to teach,” he said. “Throughout the semester, she took full advantage of the educational opportunities associated with the entrepreneurship capstone course, diving deeply into the subject matter and successfully applying the lessons she learned to her post-revenue venture. I look forward to seeing where she goes next.”

The information and guidance Howard has received at UMSL has not only helped her cookie business grow but has also assisted in her development as a businesswoman. For instance, she’s learned how to make effective budget decisions and negotiate her rates. The experience in the capstone course even helped her refine her pitch, which earned her a top-3 finish in this year’s EQ Student Pitch Competition. She received $1,000 to put toward her business. It was her second victory in that event for her cookie brand.

“It was amazing,” she said. “The first time I won first place, and then the second time I won third. It was overall a great experience continuing to learn how to pitch in front of people, be confident and talk slowly.”

Howard’s cookie business has been going well, as it continues to gain more catering contracts. She’s currently working on a deal with a large insurance company to provide cookies for their conference in August.

Along with continuing to manage her cookie business, future plans for Howard include pursuing an MBA at UMSL in the fall and later becoming a CPA. She wants her own tax accounting practice that focuses on assisting small businesses.

“I’ve seen the background of a lot of business owners,” she said. “They can run the business part of it, but they don’t know the financial part. So, I just want to fill in the gap, helping black and minority businesses actually get the fundamentals of accounting down.”

Wendy Todd

Wendy Todd

Eye on UMSL: Building blocks
Eye on UMSL: Building blocks

Members of the Spring 2024 graduating class of the University of Missouri–St. Louis play Jenga during the annual New Grad Bash on Thursday.

Eye on UMSL: Building blocks

Members of the Spring 2024 graduating class of the University of Missouri–St. Louis play Jenga during the annual New Grad Bash on Thursday.

Eye on UMSL: Building blocks

Members of the Spring 2024 graduating class of the University of Missouri–St. Louis play Jenga during the annual New Grad Bash on Thursday.