Learning Entrepreneurship By Living It in Minnesota’s Twin Cities
Location: St. Paul, Minnesota
Number of staff: 192
Number of full-time faculty: 127
Number of part-time faculty: 109
Student enrolled for credit: 8,365
Students enrolled in non-credit courses: 2,206
Certificate, degree, and diploma programs: 100+
Saint Paul College stands out within the Minnesota State system for its unique demographics. It’s one of the most diverse schools among the system’s 26 colleges, 7 universities, and 54 campuses. Students of color make up almost two thirds of the 10,500 people from 44 countries. They are studying on the urban community college’s campus in St. Paul.
More than a thousand of its students are high schoolers. They are enrolled in Postsecondary Enrollment Options (PSEO), Career Pathways Academy, concurrent enrollment, and other readiness programs. In addition, 240 students ages 16 to 21 attend through Gateway to College. It is a partnership program with Saint Paul Public Schools that lets students earn high school and college credits simultaneously.
For high school students, flexible enrollment options like these open doors to study topics they wouldn’t have access to otherwise. To ensure access for everyone, courses are offered online, in person, and in hybrid format. For students in some programs, like PSEO, tuition, fees, required textbooks, and other materials are covered at no cost. This can be a tremendous benefit for students who have historically been marginalized or who come from other countries. It is also great for those whose families are not able to contribute to their educational expenses.
The importance of entrepreneurship and the benefits of an entrepreneurial mindset have been gaining momentum in recent years. Regardless of whether one owns a business or not. It is because of their impact in growing businesses and creating jobs. Saint Paul College offers a certificate in entrepreneurship, and Business Instructor Linda Michel said many students earn the certificate not only to complement and broaden their business studies, but also to gain practical knowledge they can then apply in other fields of study such as cosmetology, culinary arts, automotive repair, and hospitality and event management.
To help students develop an entrepreneurial mindset, Michel incorporates the Ice House model and the accompanying book “Who Owns the Ice House: Eight Life Lessons from an Unlikely Entrepreneur.” Michel said her students devour the book and often comment it is the most meaningful and relatable required reading of their college career. She finds the eight life lessons to be a perfect way to give context to the business content in the course.
“Some students never had an opportunity to see themselves from this perspective,” Michel said. “Uncle Cleve and the Ice House model touch individuals—meeting them where they are in their entrepreneurial journey – in ways beyond words”.
Michel views her role as guiding students in self-discovery. “I tell them, ‘Don’t be afraid if you change your mind and decide not to open your business right now,’” she said. “I give students the space to explore, without judgment. There are no right or wrong answers. Student feedback to the approach taken in class often includes ‘I have never been given the opportunity to really reflect on what it means to be a business owner and to see how my dreams and aspirations can become a reality.’”
GAINING EXPERIENCE IN THE ENTREPRENEURIAL MINDSET:
Sandy Lee studied entrepreneurship with Michel via the PSEO program before she graduated in the spring of 2022 from St. Paul Public Schools. The teen had already developed some small business savvy back when she was 15. Curious, ambitious, and thoughtful beyond her years, Lee was looking for ways to earn money when she decided to start a company. And then one company became two.
Lee has always been a strong advocate for women’s rights, and it troubled her that “the beauty standards these days are overwhelming, and it’s hard to be who you are,” she explained. “A lot of Asian women are concerned about their eyes and how small they are. I first started selling lashes to make women feel more comfortable about their eyes.”
Lee’s curiosity about her customers led her to survey them about her product offerings. She found a high level of concern about wearing powerful clothing if their bodies had imperfections. The idea of branching into clothing appealed to her. She talked about the idea with a trusted confidant for encouragement before taking the leap.
Her second business also addressed a need Lee observed among people she knew. It gave her a way to stay busy during the pandemic. “Here in Minnesota, we didn’t have mochi donuts,” she said. “I decided to help the community have the sweets they want.” She and her partner (now her husband) “learned how to market, write a business plan, and make progress on our business. We bought materials. We learned how to build our own website—and it was super fun.”
Lee sees clearly how her forays into business exemplified the Ice House model, both by focusing on solving a problem for others to empower yourself and by having patience. “It was a lot of trial and error, because you have to make mistakes in order to learn,” Lee said. “But I loved it because every day I had something new to do.”
Lee’s idea caught on so successfully that competitors elbowed into the mochi donut space, including both home-based businesses and storefronts. She decided to slow production and focus on her full-time job at a bank in preparation for starting classes at the University of Minnesota Twin Cities in the fall of 2022. She and her partner also recently got traditionally married and moved to an apartment near the U of M campus, “and that was a busy time in life,” she said with a laugh.
“But that’s one thing the Ice House teaches,” she continued. “When a business closes—for whatever reason—it’s not failure at all. It’s just a step. There’s no judgment.”
PURSUING OPPORTUNITIES FOR PERSONAL GROWTH:
In Lee’s college application essay, she wrote about what it means to be an entrepreneur in her culture. “I come from a Hmong background, and there’s an emphasis on learning to provide for your family by selling the crops you grow,” she explained. However, her parents weren’t initially enthusiastic about her decision to follow an entrepreneurial path. They recognized the level of work and learning that would be required.
But Lee is passionate and persuasive. Even though they’re still nervous, Lee said, “my parents are super supportive of me because I love what I do. They saw the passion and how it was helping make me who I am.” For example, the once-quiet student has become more outgoing and overcome her fear of being looked down upon for asking questions. She now believes that “the more you talk and advocate, the more you progress.” She’s even been a guest speaker for organizations, talking about her entrepreneurial journey, the sacrifices she made, and the difficulties and joys of running a business.
Lee has set a goal of earning a Ph.D. in business administration. Her first step will be to complete her undergraduate degree in the next three years. She eventually hopes to gain experience working internationally.
But first things first: She had to figure out the large U of M campus, where some of her friends said they have gotten lost. With that hurdle is behind her, she has started looking for opportunities to connect with her professors. The same way she connected with Michel.
“I’m super grateful for all my professors so far, especially Professor Michel,” Lee said. “It’s so important to me to have the knowledge you gain from a network of supporters.”