It started with a suggestion.
Private wealth advisor Eric Fujimoto, MBA ‘94, who is chair of the School of Business and Communication’s Advisory Board, encouraged the university to craft a real-life business experience for undergraduates. The idea: help them understand all the skills required to run their own venture.
At first, the plan was to have students open and manage a pop-up concession on campus.
But then another approach was decided: in Fall 2021, the School invited students to participate in a business competition that would allow them to show off their creativity, their ability to work with others and their aptitude in everything from marketing to accounting and customer service.
Student teams came from accounting, economics, marketing and social media courses.
Dr. Bill Rhey, School of Business and Communication dean, said each team got $250 in start-up money—which was paid back at the end of the competition—and were told they’d be judged on their net profit, their “business for good” approach and their social media impact. Each of the four teams also had a faculty coordinator and mentor during the competition, which ran from October to December.
And the winners were promised a big reward: $2,500.
That winning team was called Washed Ashore, and they created jewelry out of microplastics reclaimed from Hawaii beaches. The idea was an instant hit, and they plan to keep the business alive.
“Living in Hawaii, you go to the beach often,” said student Kelsie Inoue, who was on the five-student Washed Ashore team. “While you’re there, you usually see trash and plastic washed up on the beach. We thought about how these microplastics could be repurposed in a way that would bring awareness to keeping our beaches clean and the impact we make. By making necklaces sourced from the microplastic and sea glass found on the beach, our customers wear a reminder of the difference we can make.”
From the outset, Inoue said, the team wanted to create a business with a strong mission.
And they knew their environmentally conscious message would appeal to lots of younger people, including their peers. That’s why they started by creating an Instagram account with college students as their target audience. Their @washedashore808 handle kept hundreds of customers updated on their product lines, upcoming sales, environmental impact and when they were sold out of certain items.
“The biggest takeaway from this competition was that you always need to adapt,” Inoue said. “Sometimes, you need to think on the spot or adjust to situations that aren’t the most comfortable for you, but by doing so it provides newfound skills and confidence in yourself.”
Rhey said while there was only one winner, all the student participants got something out of the competition. They applied concepts of pricing, operations, marketing, management and leadership.
And along the way, they got to imagine themselves as small business owners and entrepreneurs.
“The idea behind this competition was to give our students a greater appreciation for what they are learning in business, how it is applied in the marketplace and the importance of relationship-building,” Rhey said. “The students showed resilience and resourcefulness that was surprising and gratifying.”
He said all four participating teams took very limited resources and created “impressive micro-businesses.” One of the other teams, Silversword Sweets, was popular on campus right as the holidays rolled around. Another team, We Over Me, sold beach clean-up bags. And 3rd Avenue Attire created custom art design shirts and got more than 3,000 hits on their social media page from potential buyers.
Dr. Guanlin Gao, an associate professor of economics at Chaminade and mentor for the Silversword Sweets team, said it was wonderful to see students working together to create a product line and seek to entice customers. “Students learn so much from this high-touch, high-impact activity,” she said. “Their biggest challenge was juggling between school, work and this business competition.”
Gao added that she was especially impressed with how well students worked together.
“I hope they gained experience of developing soft skills in team-working,” she said.
Wera Panow-Loui, a marketing lecturer at Chaminade and mentor for Washed Ashore, was also excited to see just how much students got out of the experience. “I am all about teaching theories and models in a way that makes them interesting, relevant and practical for students,” she said. “This was a great opportunity to engage the students and connect classroom learning with practical application.”
She said her favorite part of the competition was getting to see her students’ creativity.
And she is very excited about the future of Washed Ashore. She’s wearing the upcycled necklaces and said the students received interest for their products from people around the state and as far away as Germany. “I strongly encourage my students to keep going and even try to find some investors,” she said.
Jackie Martinez, a junior in Communication, was captain for the 3rd Avenue Attire team and really enjoyed getting the chance to bring her artistic skills to the business competition. “I’ve always wanted to see my hand-drawn designs on tangible, wearable articles of clothing,” she said, adding that the “birth of the brand” came after a conversation among team members about the need for positive change.
The name, she added, was a nod to Chaminade and Kaimuki.
“My biggest takeaway from all of this is that anything is possible,” Martinez said. “This business competition gave me the confidence I needed to take on more challenging roles in both academic and employment settings. After seeing what I was capable of in such a short amount of time, I realized that I could realistically accomplish anything I set my mind to if I just approach it the same way.”
She added the clothing line is still taking orders under a new name, “World on Fire.”
And that is music to Rhey’s ears.
He said the competition had students doing everything from handling production to tackling group dynamics to showing off their leadership skills. Rhey added he’s grateful to Fujimoto for his vision and is looking forward to the next steps for the competition. The hope is that it will become a regular fixture at the school. “We’re discussing how we can weave this competition into our future curriculum,” he said.