Each year, students at Indiana University's Kelley School of Business work on numerous consulting projects for businesses and community service agencies, many of which could never afford to have the work done professionally.
In recent years, Kelley undergraduates have assisted about 75 organizations as varied as the Hoosier Hills Food Bank, the Lotus Education and Arts Foundation, and the Habitat for Humanity ReStore.
The projects typically are done as part of classes in marketing and business economics, and students are graded on their work and how they present it to clients. In the real world, such consulting projects might cost clients in the neighborhood of $10,000 to $15,000.
This week, four students in Robert Ridlon's economic consulting course, G400, presented the results of their capstone project to a unique client: The Flame Candle, a small business in Fort Wayne, Indiana.
The company's CEO and sole candle-maker, 12-year-old Cameron Cage, sat in the front row of a Hodge Hall classroom during the students' 30-minute presentation, absorbing recommendations about pricing, packaging and marketing.
With support from his mother and from his football coach, Cage began the business in March and now sells customized candles in a local store, Blue Jacket, and on Etsy. Among his most popular candles are the "birthday" candles and the candy-striped IU-themed ones.
"The whole reason I started it was because I watch 'Shark Tank' with my mom; I had always been interested in starting a business," said Cage, a seventh-grader at St. Paul's Lutheran School in Fort Wayne. "One day, I just decided that I was going to make candles. I thought it was going to be easy. ... It turns out that it's actually a lot harder, and it's a lot of trial and error."
Ridlon, a lecturer in Kelley's Department of Business Economics and Public Policy, said his 30 students were divided into seven teams that worked with different clients, including local cold-brew coffee company Uel Zing; the Lawrence County Solid Waste Management District; Brockway Pub in Carmel, Indiana; a local tutoring service; an online retailer; and a coffee roaster based in Indonesia.
He said the project forces his students to be more thoughtful about the level of knowledge their clients may have as they perceive what issues may need to be addressed. They may need to think about their use of business jargon when presenting recommendations.
"They have to think about good questions to ask the client, given who their client is," Ridlon said. "Whatever their recommendations are, they have to base them on whoever the client is, whether it's a 12-year-old or it's a 55-year-old CEO who has never taken a business class in their life. That's something you have to learn."
Allie Mattingly, a senior from Nappanee, Indiana, who consulted for The Flame Candle, said Cage possesses real business acumen.
"One of the good things about this project and having Cameron as a client is that even at the age of 12, he does understand a lot of the things we talked about during client calls," she said. "He was giving really valuable feedback to us, and it was surprising to us in a nice way."
Cody Chase, an honors senior from Mount Vernon, Indiana, said the experience of working with Cameron enabled him to see the bigger picture of running a company. The project presents students with all of the components of a big company, but on a micro scale.
"If you work for a very large business, it's kind of hard to see all of the different parts because it's so decentralized," said Chase, who is also a member of the leadership team at Kelley's chapter of 180 Degrees Consulting. "Because this business is much smaller, it really gave us the insights and understanding into all the details that go into pricing, shipping, advertising and all the different components that go into one entity."
Cage, who is taking an algebra class through the IU High School, said this experience may lead him to follow in the footsteps of one of his "Shark Tank" heroes, IU alumnus Mark Cuban, and study business in college, perhaps at Kelley. Three of his four older siblings have gone to IU.
"I've always been interested in business, and coming here has further increased my interest," he said.
His mother, Patty Cage, agrees. "What a great opportunity for a young entrepreneur to get a glimpse into IU and Kelley," she said, suggesting that Kelley consider offering entrepreneurship classes or camps for middle school students. "I know he would be interested in a program like that, and so would many of his classmates. Perhaps they will all grow up to be future Kelley students."
George Vlahakis is associate director of communications and media relations for the IU Kelley School of Business.