- Associated Press - Monday, March 12, 2018

HICKORY, N.C. (AP) - The bottom line for any business is making a profit, but Lenoir-Rhyne University students in Ralph Griffith’s entrepreneurship capstone class this semester are learning profit can be defined any many different ways.

His students have reached out to Unique World Gifts in Hickory to work as consultants to find ways they might be able to help the nonprofit grow.

While Lenoir-Rhyne University junior Tyler Johnson is focused on the commercial side of business, he’s learned the value of social entrepreneurship from working on this project.

“It’s just nice to know you can help other people, help everything grow and advance yourself while also advancing everybody else, lifting them up with you,” Johnson said.

Unique World Gifts sells fairly-traded handcrafted products from developing countries, according to its website, uniqueworldgifts.org.

The store has been open for 26 years.

Items for sale range from home decor to jewelry, clothing accessories, coffee, tea and chocolates.

It was established in 1992 by the Hickory Mennonite Church, local citizens and in partnership with Ten Thousand Villages, a nonprofit, fair-trade organization run by Mennonites.

Ten Thousand Villages provides a system of distribution of products and the training for the production techniques and marketing for approximately 60,000 artisans and farmers from impoverished, developing countries.

“They need the U.S. market. A lot of these artisans live in places that are maybe either remote or don’t have a tourist trade,” Unique World Gifts Executive Director Lana Ruffini said.

She was “thrilled” to have the LRU students offer to help the company.

“I love getting a fresh perspective from a younger group of people,” Ruffini said. “I can think of things. My board members and volunteers, we can think of things, but it’s nice to have new ideas.”

In return, she thinks the students will benefit from learning more about how a small, nonprofit runs.

“We operate on a shoestring, so we’re always looking for new ways to get the word out about us, and we’re small enough they can get an in-depth look at how we do things,” Ruffini said.

During the first half of the semester, the LRU students will study how Unique World Gifts operates and then in the second semester they’ll get more involved by helping execute some of their ideas to help boost the business’s bottom line.

“It was a really great experience to be able to look at this company in this way. It’s a great space inside and out,” Johnson said. “They have a lot of unique items, different products and so far we’ve been impressed with the company and what it does.”

He expects the assignment will add more depth to his educational experience this semester.

“You can read books or do case studies all day, but to actually get out and get this kind of experience, it’s something not many college students get to do,” Johnson said.

“In the big picture of things, it helps with having confidence and makes it a lot easier to go out into the real world feeling ready.”

This is LRU’s fourth year of offering this opportunity to students participating in the entrepreneurship program.

Griffith said it took a couple of years to get it going, to understand what the market needed and how the students could be valuable. The program has been able to sharpen its focus more every year, gaining a greater understanding of how it can help local companies, including non-profits.

“It’s complicated to reach out to any business and say ‘could we put a bunch of young people who maybe do or don’t know anything in with you and see if we can help you out,’” Griffith said. “It could be awkward sometimes.”

He sees businesses like Unique World Gifts as good partners in this kind of venture, open-minded enough to accept the help. The nonprofits are generally the most willing to accept input from students because they tend to have smaller staffs.

“I think it takes some humility in some regards for them to say, ‘We think we’re doing well but could there be new things we can do,’ so I think they’re great partners in that regard,” Griffith said.

For Ruffini, creating partnerships is what Unique World Gifts is all about.

“To know what we do impacts people globally is a good feeling,” she said.

The LRU students working on the entrepreneurship project include Johnson, Tomas Hons, William Parish, Tione Poteat and Tylyn Triplett.

Unique World Gifts is sponsored locally by the Episcopal Church of the Ascension, Corinth Reformed Church and Saint Aloysius Catholic Church, all of Hickory.


Information from: The Hickory Daily Record, http://www.hickoryrecord.com

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