Penn State Altoona Enactus students help bring a boom to local business
By: Marissa Carney
When life gives you lemons, make lemonade, so the saying goes. Or in the case of Maryann Cook, make gluten-free flour. Cook was diagnosed with celiac disease and managed to turn that difficulty into a successful business venture, with the help of the Penn State Altoona Enactus team.
Cook, a full-blooded Italian who loves to bake, was disappointed to learn her medical condition prohibited her from eating many of the baked goods she'd always enjoyed. Celiac disease makes it difficult, and even life-threatening, to digest gluten, a protein found in wheat and related grains and often used in baking. Cook tried some store-bought, gluten-free sweets, but thought they tasted terrible. So she got creative and began experimenting with different ways to make gluten-free flour until she found something she liked. On a whim, Cook decided to make pizzelles, an Italian waffle cookie, with the new recipe. They passed muster, and she began selling them to Everything Natural Under the Sun in Altoona, a specialty health store. After adding a few more stores, she was soon pleasantly surprised to find she had basically started a business. In 2013, she opened Bella Lucia, complete with a bakery and store-front located in the Juniata section of the city. And that's where Penn State Altoona came in.
At first, students served as interns at the company. But in fall 2015, Cynthia Wood, co-adviser to the college's Enactus (Enabling Progress Through Entrepreneurial Action) team, approached Cook about a different, unique opportunity utilizing students involved in the organization. ENACTUS brings together students, academic professionals, and industry leaders with the shared mission of creating a better, more sustainable world through the positive power of business. Through Enactus, students are able to use concepts learned in the classroom to assist local businesses throughout the academic year. "One of the things I wanted was innovative, fresh eyes," says Cook of the collaboration. "This partnership has been a truly amazing resource for me."
Victoria Huscilowitc, a sophomore studying management, is the project manager for Enactus's Bella Lucia team. Through a proposal she wrote for a SAM's Club Step Up for Small Business Challenge Grant, the Bella Lucia team was awarded $2,100 to put toward their work with the company.
The students took on a variety of projects for Bella Lucia. One aspect involved creating a more modern logo and different label templates and obtaining cost and design estimates from print vendors. They also worked on redesigning the current packaging to look more attractive on the shelves. Working with the locally-owned convenience store Sheetz, Inc., the team is helping Cook place packages of Bella Lucia products into its store locations, offering two pizzelles in a grab-and-go bag. "Even though it would be private labeling through Sheetz, it still gets her product out there. This would be a great opportunity to expand Bella Lucia," says Huscilowitc.
Team members also were able to assist Cook with was the implementation of waste and cost-saving technique through the use of excess batter as a flour substitute, rather than simply throwing it away. They estimate Cook is saving nearly $2,100 a year through this system.
Huscilowitc knows she was given tremendous opportunities and invaluable experience through her work with Enactus and specifically Bella Lucia. "I never thought that I'd be working, one on one, with a business and making an impact. The skills that I have gained and the connections I have made are incredible. Enactus in general has been a life-changer for me."
Huscilowitc says she put in at least thirty hours a week working with Enactus and Bella Lucia, but such a big commitment in addition to classes and other activities has been worth it. "I'm really passionate about the organization and devoted to it. It's very exciting, and I'm really happy with what I've accomplished."
Cook is looking forward to future collaboration with Enactus and has been promoting the program to other small businesses in the area. She anticipates the updated logo and labels will be done in the fall and would love to see plans with Sheetz come to fruition. "It was a great year. The direction things have gone through Enactus is so much better than I imagined. I'm very open to whatever comes next."