March 3, 2021 8 min read
If it wasn’t for Lorene Cowan’s parents, she wouldn’t be where she is today — geographically or otherwise. Her father, Etel, first emigrated from Jamaica to East Flatbush, Brooklyn in the mid-1960s after being recruited by the U.S. Sugar Corporation. Her mother, Sonia, followed three years later. She aspired to be a designer but ultimately took work as a nurse.
Their determined ethic and selfless desire to create stability and opportunity for their children left an indelible impression. Flash forward a few decades, and Lorene — the oldest among four siblings — had graduated with a degree in business management and marketing from St. John’s University and worked her way up through companies as varied as the Lifetime television network and affordable-housing developer L+M Partners.
By 2016, she’d earned a Master’s from Harvard and opened her own credit-repair firm, Business Arsenal Inc. But more germane to our recent phone conversation is the fact that she simultaneously launched Business Arsenal University (BAU), an online resource guide for student entrepreneurs trying to juggle their academic priorities and budding career aspirations. And in April 2020, under the auspices of BAU, Cowan staged the first-annual National Student Entrepreneur Summit, a networking and workshopping forum that took place at City University of New York.
The 2021 Summit, sponsored by The HBCU Foundation, Harvard Alumni Entrepreneurs and Queens College, will be occurring virtually this Saturday. For its second iteration, Cowan wanted to up the ante while paying tribute to her parents, particularly now that her mother is no longer with us. So she raised $4,000 from family, friends and community members, a sum that will be awarded as the Etel & Sonia Cowan Student Entrepreneurial Grant and given to whichever college- or high-school-age participant wins that day’s pitch competition. Plus, the grantee will receive continuing mentorship from Summit Keynote Speaker and branding strategist Monique Jackson.
Entrepreneur will report on the winner after they’re announced, but will also periodically check in on their progress. Leading up to all that, we caught up with Cowan for more background about how and why she pulled this together, and the challenges that any student entrepreneur faces on their road to rewarding returns.
Did the idea for this year’s grant grow from wanting to honor your parents, or had you always envisioned this and it just felt natural to dedicate it in their names?
During college, it’s something that just kind of weighed heavy on me — that I wanted my mom’s legacy to live on. But I just didn’t have the time. I was just trying to move ahead in life, and at one point I just stayed still and was like, “It’s time.” And that’s how this whole thing kind of happened.
If you started picturing something like this Summit and grant while you were in college, does that explain why it’s ultimately focused on student entrepreneurs?
I have an awesome family. They’re warm. They’re sweet. But they weren’t business people. It’s in my spirit, something that I’ve always wanted to do. But when I went to school, they didn’t have programs that focused on entrepreneurs. They had stuff that focused on how to help someone else’s business thrive and grow, but there was really no community that helped student entrepreneurs launch small shops. And so I saw that there was something lacking. And it wasn’t just in my school particularly. I think it was just across the board. It’s more celebrated now, especially in this digital age, but that wasn’t really the case when I started out.
The event is ultimately open to anyone, but you’re a businesswoman of color, and you have buy-in on the Summit from at least one organization dedicated to students of color. Are you hoping to see a strong turnout among student entrepreneurs of color?
I’m probably getting more applications from everybody else. Not to say that I’m not getting applications from students of color, but we have definitely put our marketing efforts towards reaching out not only to students of color but all students. Because of who I am, that sort of is my network, so you kind of tap into those resources, but I’m actually in partnership with Common Scholarship App for that diversity component. And we’re promoting this event in all schools: state schools, Ivy Leagues, community colleges — across the board. When I’m contacting other schools, because they see me and I’m black, they’re like, “Is this for everyone?” And I’m like, “Yes!”
Did you raise the amount of money you were hoping to get for the grant?
To be honest with you, I was kind of sad. I wanted to raise $20,000. Everyone was like, “You know $4,000 is enough for a college kid. You do realize that, right?” I’m like, “Are you sure?” They’re like, “Um, yes.”
What do you think the best way would be for the winner to allocate that money?
There’s basic foundational things they need to do; the legal components, possibly setting up a website, securing their name. That’s just a baseline for any business. Outside of that, I would say we want to do a deep dive into marketing strategy and branding strategy. If they need to purchase product, I would probably suggest that we do a dropshipping method to cut costs. So depending on what they’re doing, I would advise them on a specific track. There are ways to cut costs so that you’re not spending the entire amount on products that are sitting in your living room. We’re trying to maximize every dollar and penny that we put into it.
Beyond the money, what do you hope entices students to log on and be a part of this year’s Summit?
Originally, this was supposed to be a situation where we were going to invite hundreds of entrepreneurs to come in and mingle. And so we’ve had to pivot and make decisions on how we can create impact. One of the things we’re going to do is have a school administrator come in and talk about what kids can do on their campus to pull resources from the school in order to make their business thrive. We’re going to have a panel discussion talking about student entrepreneurship on campus and what you can do to maximize your time, as well as tips and tricks to market your business and partners with your peers in order to bring awareness to your product. These kids have thousands of Facebook followers between themselves. What if they came together as one to form this group where they’re actually supporting each other’s businesses.
There’s going to be a Q&A session with industry experts on the panel, and we’ll also allow them to have discussions live on the chat. Yes, we have the pitch battle, but we also are going to have the keynote speaker. She’s actually going to be mentoring the first-prise winner, but the second-prize winner goes through an eight-week program with her in regards to branding, marketing and, selling. And then for the last two young folks that weren’t able to move to the next level, she’s going to provide one-on-one coaching with them. So we’re not leaving these kids hanging. This is not a one-day thing.
Is the takeaway that student entrepreneurs don’t have to make this zero-sum choice between finishing school and starting their business?
It is 100% my goal for students to know that you can accomplish all things within your educational pursuit, as well as going after your dreams of being an entrepreneur. They can go hand-in-hand. There are some schools that will give you credit for having your own business. These are the things that we want to talk about so these kids can understand it’s a good thing. You are learning the foundation. I don’t care what field you’re interested in — you can create a business around that. You can create a business that’s something totally irrelevant to your degree, but you can do both and we’re here to help you do just that.