The college-student money struggle, a tie that binds undergraduates nationwide, has found a rare exception: student entrepreneurs.
For many students, the typical allowance is whatever they can make from an on-campus job or the cash they manage to shimmy out of their parents’ wallets. But for a few highly motivated students with self-started businesses earning them up to five figures per year, feeling cash-strapped is a thing of the past.
Senior Zach Giberson is one of those students. He created his high-fashion suit and jacket line, Element Threads, after spending his junior year in Beijing and interning in Shanghai last summer.
“I had the idea about six months ago, and I was basically a slave to it,” Giberson said. “It’s kind of like having a crush on a girl. She just keeps coming to your head and you can’t really get her out of it.”
Giberson was interning at GSN, a medical training company, where he worked as a project manager and networked with factory owners, learning the skills of a middleman. And after his workday would end, Giberson applied those skills to building his own business.
“No one right now on the internet is only doing high-fashion, unique designs on just jackets,” Giberson said. The opportunity to build this market inspired him to create an e-commerce store that would provide customers tailored, customized jackets for $250 each.
While in China, Giberson networked with a web of about 50 factories. He could communicate with them to create easily customizable products.
“To the online influencer, I’m the customizable T-shirt site for any product that you want, so that you can build your own brand,” Giberson said.
Giberson’s plans include collaborating with bloggers and YouTubers to make their own product lines and ultimately selling Element Threads or turning the brand into a partnership with online influencers.
“Element Threads is definitely my child right now, and I want to raise it, find people to make it a partnership and see where that goes.”
Senior fashion blogger Amy Littleson recently partnered with Giberson to release a four-product line through her blog this spring. She is one of his first clients.
“I’ve always been interested in design, but I never imagined it would be feasible this soon because I don’t have any contacts with manufacturers,” Littleson said.
Littleson, who started a fashion and lifestyle blog, called “I Believe in Pink,” during her freshman year, has been making money from her posts since the spring of 2014. She said she needed a creative outlet since she was taking Calculus and hated it.
When starting her blog, which she updates three to four times per week, Littleson kept it a secret from her friends.
“Back then, I thought people would be like, ‘Who is this girl with a website about herself?’” Littleson said.
Now, her secret has become a lifestyle: Littleson has two interns who help her stay on track and about 25,000 followers on Instagram.
Through her media kit, which provides rates to companies interested in sponsorship, and by monetizing her Instagram posts with shopping tools such as LIKEtoKNOW.it, Littleson makes a few hundred dollars per sponsored post.
She also receives free products constantly, a common thread among bloggers.
Junior Helaine Ridilla obtains items all the time through her fitness Instagram, Hella.Fit.Helaine. After she began teaching fitness classes at the Weinstein Center on campus, Ridilla created the Instagram account and would occasionally contact companies to receive free merchandise.
“The other day I went to Panera and took a picture of my meal,” Ridilla said. “Panera direct-messaged me and was like, ‘We would like to send you gifts, can we have your address? And in the meantime, we’d like to pay for your next meal.’ And I was like, ‘Um, yeah! I’d love that!’”
Juggling school work, fitness classes and an off-campus accounting job, Ridilla seizes opportunities in her daily activities to capture posts for her over 10,000 followers.
”Before class, I record my exercises on my phone, and from that I can take a screenshot and turn it into a post for later,” she said. “Or if I’m eating something cool and different I’ll take a quick picture.”
Senior Caleb Troy also makes work out of his photos. What started as a hobby when Troy was 15 years old has become a form of income for him, enough to pay his living expenses.
“I like to [photograph] naturally occurring patterns, whether it’s beat-up wood or the sky,” Troy said. “A lot of my most popular pieces are just from images of clouds that I kind of put on my computer and mess with the colors and do different things on Photoshop.”
Troy’s prints are available on Society6, where they are sold as anything from cell-phone cases to wall clocks to tote bags. “By my second year, I had over 1,000 sales,” Troy said. “It was kind of like a snowball effect, and then, as that picked up, I started to get contacted by other companies.”
By working with companies like DENY Designs, Troy has sold his artwork in Urban Outfitters and Target and makes five figures per year.
“I’ve done a bunch of other random licensing things,” Troy said. “I did like three or four really big prints with a restaurant that was being put in the Newark International Airport.”
During the school year, Troy doesn’t put much time into his business. Taking five classes and holding a spot on Richmond’s varsity tennis team, he finds himself less inclined to dedicate time to his artwork.
“Honestly, by the end of the day, even if I have an hour to do it, I’d rather lay on my couch and watch Netflix.”
Being a student is very much a full-time job, but somehow these entrepreneurs have managed to build their brands and get through semester after semester. Giberson, Littleson, Ridilla and Troy have made brands of their passions and earned an income in the process.
“It’s like a side hustle, and I love it and it’s fun,” Troy said.