First Words: Student entrepreneurs create businesses and solve problems.

By Carol Marcy

Read more about Ben and his fair-trade venture.

While still a student, Benjamin Conard ’16 launched a chocolate business that is helping to improve the lives of impoverished cocoa farmers in places like West Africa, where 70 percent of the world’s cocoa is produced. Conard’s chocolate is Fair Trade Certified™ — cocoa that is supported by fair wages, safe working conditions, and without child or slave labor. 

He has won several national and international awards for his successful business, and was named one of 2016’s Top 10 Biggest Fairtrade Advocates in the World by Fairtrade International.

From idea to viable business plan to pitching and launching Five North Chocolate, Conard was guided through the process by VentureWorks, an entrepreneurship and networking program at SUNY Geneseo. 

VentureWorks is the brainchild of Judy Albers, the Charles L. VanArsdale Chair for Entrepreneurship at Geneseo’s School of Business. Since 2013, Albers has offered courses, workshops and hosted events that provide students with experiential learning, funding opportunities, sustainable business practices, and business pitch competitions — where they win top awards. To date, VentureWorks has actively pursued 36 ideas with the intent of starting real companies. 

Q. What was the impetus for developing an entrepreneurial program at Geneseo?

A. It began with Charles “Bud” VanArsdale, former president of the Bank of Castile. He was inspired by innovative businesses and helped them thrive in the community. He and his late wife, Marjorie, who was a teacher, were longtime supporters of the College and they made a generous gift to launch and sustain the program. 

Q. Who participates in VentureWorks and what do they learn?

A. The program is interdisciplinary and students of all majors can participate. We provide a great deal of experiential learning, both hands-on learning and working in teams. I’m here to teach students the fundamentals and answer questions such as:  “What is the problem you’re solving?,” “What is the competitive landscape?”  and “How are you going to operate your business?” 

Q. How do students come up with ideas for a new business?

A. The first lessons students learn are idea-formation strategies. Every successful start-up company has solved a problem or satisfied a desire. Five North Chocolate is an example of satisfying a desire while helping to solve the problem of exploited cocoa farmers by buying fair trade chocolate. To learn more about problems, our student teams work with Geneseo faculty who are experts in their fields and as researchers, they investigate problems that are poorly understood or need a solution. 

Q. How do students know if a business venture is viable?

A. Before I came to Geneseo, I developed an entrepreneurs’ workshop to help professors evaluate their inventions in terms of their potential commercial value and as start-
up companies. That two-and-half-day Head-start Workshop is now part of VentureWorks. It brings together a comprehensive team of experts — technical, legal, finance and business — from campus and the community so students can receive input and transform potentially commercially-viable ideas and technologies into pre-seed stage (capital investable) companies for further investigation.  

Q. VentureWorks consistently performs well at business pitch competitions. Why are your teams so successful? 

A. The competitions represent the culmination of a lot of work in our Commercial Ideation and Idea2Venture courses. It’s nearly a year’s worth of effort that gets us to the point where we are competitive. But it pays off. This year, the Volt-Air Technologies team was awarded a $50,000 grant from the National Science Foundation to participate in the National I-Corps program starting in July for advancing “asynchronous magnetic resonance” as a wireless charging option for drones. They also won the $10,000 first prize in the Advanced Technology category at the New York Business Plan Competition finals this year. Verdimine, a proprietary green chemistry process that improves safety and efficiency in manufacturing specialty chemicals across many industries, was a second-place winner in the Clean Tech category last year. They won $40,000 from the Technology Accelerator Fund at SUNY Research Foundation, and earlier this year, they received a $10,000 NEXUS-NY Phase I grant and $50K for NEXUS-NY Phase II.

Judy Albers is the Charles L. VanArsdale Chair for Entrepreneurship in the Business School. Albers received a bachelor’s degree in chemistry from Duke University, a doctorate in chemistry from Brandeis University, and was a post-doc in chemistry at Princeton University.