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Student entrepreneur turns class project into small business

Gracie Larkin, a recent College of Business graduate, is the founder of 615 Coasters - an assignment turned fully operational business

Cate Zenzen  | 

615 Coasters

As part of the liberal arts curriculum offered by Lipscomb University, the College of Business embeds foundational courses in crucial business topics such as finance, management, and entrepreneurship within all major requirements. These introductory courses challenge students to think of all the careers and industries available to them, and to say “yes” to opportunities they hadn’t considered before. Thanks to this versatile education, Gracie Larkin, a recent COB graduate, discovered a new passion that eventually led to her own small business. 

Larkin, from Burns, TN, discovered her interest in business while working as an assistant to an Executive Manager at Nashville Fabrication LLC, a local steel manufacturing company. In 2018, she transferred to Lipscomb from Nashville State Community College to pursue a degree within the College of Business. In her first semester at Lipscomb, Larkin’s interest was piqued even further as a student in the Intro to Entrepreneurship course. Her experience in the class led her to pursue the subject. 

“It was really the Intro to Entrepreneurship class that inspired me to add entrepreneurship to my major, and once I got into those major courses I realized this was something I enjoyed enough to be good at,” said Larkin.

Designed to be experiential in nature, the Intro to Business course is one of the foundational requirements for all business majors. Students are divided into groups with the objective to develop, launch and maintain a company with the help of a loan from The College of Business. At the end of the semester, each group’s business must make enough money to pay back the loan, with additional profits donated to a non-profit organization. 

Larkin decided to produce and sell stainless-steel coasters for her group project, after finding a similar product on the desk of a coworker. Her connections to Nashville Fabrication LLC allowed her access to the materials and computer programs needed to create the product. 

The students named the company 615 Coasters in tribute to the local connections that produced and cut the steel. Once the product was produced, the group attached cork to the back, packaged and sold the finished coaster. The students got creative and developed unique designs, such as the Tennessee Tri-Star, the “615” area code, and a functioning bottle-opener, and even offered a custom-design option. They sold their product both on and off-campus, and ended the semester with the highest amount of profit in their class. 

Despite the success of the business, Larkin didn’t have any intention of continuing the venture beyond the semester. She was approached by Jeff Cohu, the director of the Center for Entrepreneurship within the COB, to take the project further. Cohu was impressed with Larkin’s ingenuity and explained the College had resources available for students to operate their own small businesses. Having fully realized her talent and passion for entrepreneurship, Larkin decided to continue operations. 

“Gracie has high energy and is persistent. She worked hard to figure out the best approach to make this business work step-by-step, and has strong leadership skills that have helped her build this idea into a business. She developed a product with a unique design and worked to make the right connections. She made a tremendous amount of progress in a short time,” said Cohu. 

Larkin began to challenge herself further by competing in pitch competitions where she presented her product concept to a variety of audiences. She competed on behalf of her company on many occasions including at the meetings for the on-campus Collegiate Entrepreneurship Organization, the Chattanooga CEO Conference, and the Kittrell Pitch Competition hosted by Lipscomb. To prepare for these competitions, Larkin found guidance and help from Dr. Cohu, as well as Assistant Director of Entrepreneurship Jerry Stubblefield

“I really admire Dr. Cohu for how successful he has been with his entrepreneurship endeavors and the companies he’s involved in. He’s a very humble man and never mentions that nearly 90% of the students he helps make it to nationals in pitch competitions. He knows everything there is to know about entrepreneurship, and one of the first things I thought of was that I had this great mentor who could help me with everything,” said Larkin. 

With such a mentor, Larkin felt better equipped to take on the challenges of running a small business. She admits her biggest struggle has been in discovering what her customers want in a product before it is created. But through each trial, she’s found support in her fellow students, as she is not the only student entrepreneur within the College of Business. 

Next semester, Larkin will begin the Master of Accountancy program at Lipscomb, and has recruited her family to help operate 615 Coasters while she continues school. Larkin acknowledges that while her business may not be her top priority now, she will not give it up until it has reached its full capacity.

“I think it’s important to continue because it’s not in my character or personality to start something and not see it through. Even if it takes several years to get it to that full capacity, then that’s what it takes,” said Larkin.