Entrepreneurial activity has reached fever pitch. In 2012, 13 percent of Americans owned a business or were in the process of starting one, according to the Global Entrepreneurship Monitor project, the largest ongoing study of entrepreneurial dynamics in the world. That’s the highest level since the survey first began in 1999.
Ithaca College’s alumni are ahead of the curve, with a long history of being self-starters—including many who incubated their businesses on campus. Founder and chief executive of Burch Creative Capital and cofounder of high-end fashion label Tory Burch LLC, Chris Burch ’76 purveyed sweaters and pinball machines as an IC student. Professor Barry Sheridan guided him through creating his first business plans.
Burch’s Eagle’s Eye brand of sweaters grew so popular that even when a shipment came in from Scotland and the sweaters were smaller than expected, his network of college salespeople succeeded in selling them anyway, convincing buyers that the snug fit was stylish.
Today Burch, who funds and judges the Ithaca College Business Idea Competition
, sees many entrepreneurship opportunities for IC students, thanks to the campus community and leadership. “The school really embraces entrepreneurs,” he says.
The perks of running your own business are always balanced against risks, however. Burch and five other alumni entrepreneurs share lessons learned on their paths to success.
The Idea of C. Wonder from Burch Creative Capital on Vimeo.
Long before Chris Burch balanced college business classes and a growing sweater sales company, he was a tween entrepreneur making spare cash selling newspapers to students at his prep school. “When most kids went and got jobs, I would go and blacktop people’s driveways,” he says. For him, it was simple math: a few hours’ labor earned him $200, while his peers were toiling for $5 an hour.
That knack for ferreting out opportunity has served Burch well. His international company manages venture investments and brand development in a variety of start-ups, including big names, such as boutique fashion chain C. Wonder, cordless gadget-charging system Powermat, and bottled water Voss.
At first glance, a tech company seems vastly different than one selling bottled water, but Burch says he looks for similar attributes when a business plan crosses his desk: strong leadership, creativity, risk-taking. Yet there has to be more than just a catchy innovation, something Burch realized in his own business endeavors.
“Most entrepreneurs are people who think of a simple idea—a new kind of charger or a new kind of sweater,” he says. But a crucial step is conceptualizing a business that can grow and thrive long term.
Burch places most emphasis on whether consumers will love the product. The profits are secondary, he says.
“I never look, actually, at where I’ll sell the business or where the business will be profitable,” Burch says. That’s opened the door to opportunities other investors have overlooked. “Many people would prefer to take less risk and be more stable.”
A bigger challenge is stepping away. “For me to be totally out of work, I have to be in an area without cell phone service,” he says—which is why he vacations in the remote Indonesian island of Sumba. But on a daily basis, he juggles business obligations with making time for his six children.
Read more about top-shelf entrepreneurs that have roots at IC:
Carl Daikeler '86, creator and chief executive of Beachbody.com
Jillian Gibbs '88, founder and chief executive of Advertising Production Resources
Mark French '97, president of Mission Basketball, inventor of Court Grip
Simon Baumer '05 and Paul Canetti '05, cofounders of Maz Digital