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UI Student Entrepreneurs Help Disabled Business Owners

A group of student entrepreneurs at the University of Iowa is helping disabled business owners at Uptown Bill's Small Mall in Iowa City become more self-sufficient and profitable. Throughout the school year, members of the I-Envision club taught the business owners the basics of e-commerce—how to buy, sell, and trade on sites such as eBay and Amazon. As a way to extend its support for Uptown Bill's at the end of the year, I-Envision is sponsoring the 2nd Annual David Hensley Charity Golf Invitational on Friday, April 28.

The golf event, named for David Hensley, director of the John Pappajohn Entrepreneurial Center (JPEC) at the UI, begins at noon Friday at Pleasant Valley Golf Course in Iowa City. Thomas Walz, UI professor emeritus, former director of the UI School of Social Work, and project director of Uptown Bill's Small Mall, will speak at a dinner following the tournament.

Proceeds from the event will help purchase a new soda fountain at Wild Bill's Coffee Shop in Uptown Bill's. I-Envision hopes to raise more than $1,000 at the golf event. I-Envision has received generous support from many local businesses in support of the golf event. Sponsors include: Alberhasky Eye Clinic, Active Endeavors, Big Ten Rentals, ConAgra, Dave Consulting, Hensley Ltd., hotelVetro, the Iowa City Sheraton, Iowa State Bank and Trust Company, JPEC, McDonald Optical, The Mansion, Parsons Properties, Pleasant Valley Golf Course, Technigraphics, and Toyota of Iowa City.

"I-Envision students have been volunteering at Uptown Bill's since September, and the golf outing is another way to help," says Tyler Mackie, a UI junior helping organize the event. Fifteen I-Envision students worked with the business owners on how to set up an online business through classes and one-on-one mentoring.

The students also help at the E-Commerce Service and Training Center, 2003 F St. in Iowa City, an affiliated program of Uptown Bill's created through Walz's Extend the Dream Foundation. The center has trained and educated six people with disabilities to work and earn money on their own using e-commerce skills.

Two examples of businesses that have benefited from the students' eBay expertise are the Vintage Shoppe, next door to the e-commerce center, and Bill's Bookmart in the Small Mall. An online eBay store greatly expands the market for the shops, with many vintage and collectible buyers willing to pay top dollar for desired items such as vintage clothing and antiques. Other trainees occasionally dabble in buying and selling items online, working on their own schedule.

"An online business gives disabled people greater flexibility and they can work when they have the energy. It takes advantage of the intellect, background and knowledge people bring to the table," Walz said.

The students learn valuable lessons from the experience as well. They can earn one hour of UI credit for volunteering at the Small Mall, while sharing their skills and helping others.

"Students are able to establish a relationship with an individual business owner and are able to give back to the community. We're helping them create a self-sustaining business," Mackie said.

"The students are very active and came over and did everything, from modeling prom dresses (at the Vintage Shoppe) to tutoring the business owners," Walz added. "I-Envision really came through and delivered."

Uptown Bill's Small Mall is named after Bill Sackter, a mentally handicapped man, who operated a coffee shop on the University of Iowa campus from 1974 to 1983 until he died at age 70. He became one of the best-known and loved Iowa City residents during the late 1970s and 1980s. Though involuntarily committed to a state institution for 45 years, entering at age seven, Bill returned to the community to become a "gift" to those who knew him. His remarkable life was memorialized in an Emmy award-winning movie "Bill" and a sequel "Bill on His Own!"


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