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College Students Control Own Destiny By Playing the Boss

Somewhere in between studying for his course load at DePaul University, working on his thesis and practicing short track speed skating, Chris Stankiewicz finds time to run his organic lawn care business.

At just 22, you might think this college senior is atypical - he spends all of his free time working and not partying.

While trying to graduate with a degree in secondary education and social sciences, he also is managing a growing lawn company.

"Sometimes I was working 15-17 hour days at the start," he said. "When you combine this with other commitments, time management and efficiency become paramount."

More and more college students are realizing it's never too early to become entrepreneurs.

"There is no security or lifetime jobs in large corporations anymore, and the students know that," said Gerry Hills, the founder of Collegiate Entrepreneur Organization and a pioneer in teaching business startups. "They can get a job with someone else controlling their destiny, or they can create their own job."

In the five years Hills' organization has been up and running, it's grown to have 14,000 members on more than 120 campuses across the country.

Hills, a professor and director of an entrepreneurial department at the University of Illinois at Chicago, said college is a great time for career experimentation.

"No matter how successful the business is, the learning that takes place will be of value for a lifetime," he said.

Stankiewicz, of Des Plaines, launched his lawn company Green Creations Inc. last spring after he became increasingly concerned about the use of pesticides.

Since then, he's hired three employees to take care of lawns organically by using low-emissions equipment, waste-reduction methods and products that don't contain pesticides.

Recent media attention on young, wealthy businesspeople has prompted some college students to beat a career path as soon as possible.

At Northern Illinois University, the business school has launched a one-credit class based on Donald Trump's NBC reality show "The Apprentice." In the class, students compete against each other to soar to the top of the classroom business community.

"We used to be concerned about college students being aware of entrepreneuring as a career path," Hills said. "But today, with all the media attention to entrepreneurship, virtually all students at least have a basic awareness, so it contributes to more students starting businesses as well."

These days, Hills said, many universities are encouraging students to start businesses with entrepreneurial programs.

At the University of Iowa, for example, the Bedell Entrepreneurship Learning Laboratory is less than a year old and aims to help aspiring entrepreneurs. The lab has 17 fully-equipped offices with furniture, computers and high-speed Internet access, a conference room and two larger meeting spaces for student use.

The University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign was just awarded $4.5 million from the Kauffman Foundation to promote entrepreneurship classes throughout the university curriculum, not just in the business school.

"With this money, we're integrating entrepreneurship material into studies like agriculture, painting, music and veterinary medicine," said Paul Magelli, director of the Academy of Entrepreneurship Leadership Development at the university. "In a society where there's so much joblessness, one of the only alternatives is to start your own business."

Mike Wenger and Bret Bonnett started their student business in April 2003 from an idea they conceived at North Central College in Naperville. The duo launched an Internet business called Quality Logo Products Inc. to sell promotional items like pens, T-shirts and golf balls.

At the time, they said, it would have cost the two more than $40,000 to design their Web site. Because they didn't have the money, they did it themselves and usually worked from 6 p.m. to 3 a.m. three nights a week, in between studying for tests.

"We had to build the site and were doing everything manually since we had no money," said Wenger, 22, of Warrenville, adding the company earned $24,000 in the first eight months. "We started from ground zero, but we just recently started paying ourselves."

Wenger said there were many nights when his friends gave him a tough time for not going out and relaxing in his free time.

"It was definitely a mental struggle at times," he said. "I was a senior and I wasn't living it up and partying as a typical senior would."

Hills, who is the co-founder and first president of the U.S. Association for Small Business and Entrepreneurship, said it's a myth most businesses require large startup capital and investments.

"It is easier than most realize," he said. "The business can be somewhere between the classic lemonade stand and an exotic, world-breaking technology."

He said there is no agreed-upon set of characteristics that make for a successful entrepreneur. However, more than 200 studies show creativity, flexibility, significant but not excessive self-confidence, and tolerance won't hurt. Plus, when you're a student, staff at your school or even parents are willing to help out.

"We were 100 percent behind our son," said Mike Wenger's father, David. "It was remarkable he could graduate while being a student involved in activities and running his own business."

David Wenger said his son usually called him for help when he was uncertain about something along the way .

"Students often do not have a spouse, children and a mortgage - or assets to lose," Hills said. "It's a great time for business career experimentation."

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