Students serve up sweet proposals to Sister Pie owner Lisa Ludwinski ’06
Several Kalamazoo College business students jumped into a tank of sharks and lived to tell about it as they carried out capstone projects for their marketing management course.
Shark Tank, a business-related reality TV series, allows aspiring entrepreneurs to make business presentations to a panel of investors, or “sharks,” who then choose whether to invest in their company as partners.
A K version played out on campus during the winter 2019 term as students submitted 50-page pitch books and presented entrepreneurial ideas to K alumna Lisa Ludwinski ’06 and a panel of faculty. The students’ ideas showed how Ludwinski—the founder and lead baker at Sister Pie, a popular bakery in the West Village neighborhood of Detroit—could invest in her business to spur continued growth.
“It’s not a typical presentation where the panel sits, listens and then asks questions,” said Amy MacMillan, the L. Lee Stryker Associate Professor of Business Management at K, who teaches the course and credits Tim Moffit ’80, an associate professor of Economics and Business, for developing it. “The ‘sharks’ interrupt frequently, forcing students to think on their feet and try to maintain control while also being responsive. It’s quite intense. This year, with Professor Moffit on sabbatical, I had the pleasure of team-teaching with Kevin Howley ’81. Our financial and marketing skills meshed well together, and we had a blast teaching it.”
Ludwinski, a best-selling author with her cookbook titled Sister Pie, was a finalist this year for a James Beard Foundation Award in the outstanding baker category. In January, she visited MacMillan’s class and talked about her business. The students took that information and spent the term working on a business plan that they could then present to the panel of sharks.
“It was definitely not how I had expected to come back to Kalamazoo, but it sounded like a great opportunity,” said Ludwinski, a theatre major who credits K for a breadth of experiences that prepared her for owning a business. “I loved being back at K and I was absolutely impressed with the students’ ideas. They came up with things I had never thought of before. They applied their market research to my areas and numbers, and one group even made a commercial.”
That group was led by Zach Van Faussien, a senior economics major, French minor and four-year member of the Kalamazoo College football team, who is interested in a career in finance. The inspiration for the group’s work developed as they thumbed through Ludwinski’s cookbook, which was released last fall.
“We thought the cookbook was unusual at first, because it seemed like she was giving away some of her secret recipes,” Van Faussien said. Still, the team determined the recipes could dovetail well with Ludwinski’s desire to have her business provide positive influences in the community.
“We thought people could make Sister Pies in their own homes, and we sold it as a community-building experience,” Van Faussien said. “Making pie could be a great way to build up family and benefit the relationships that matter most.”
His group interviewed their own friends and family, and determined a big deterrent to making pies at home was the difficulty in mixing the dough from scratch. As a result, Van Faussien and company recommended that Sister Pie offer four types of pie-making kits, each containing the dry ingredients required to make one of Ludwinski’s signature pies. They would use Sister Pie’s Instagram profile to promote the kits and run social media ads targeted toward people interested in making desserts.
The commercial that stemmed from these ideas was about a minute long, Van Faussien said. “We wanted it to be professional with a well-thought-out plan, but we still wanted to have fun while doing it.”
Another group also was driven by Ludwinski’s desire to improve the community where her business is located. Becca Rogers, a business major from Mason, Michigan, said her group suggested expanding Sister Pie to a second location in northern Michigan, where Ludwinski could focus on locally sourced produce, supporting local farms and environmental sustainability.
“After talking with Lisa, we immediately wanted to pursue her dream of creating a location in northern Michigan,” Rogers said of the group’s recommendation to build in Petoskey. “There’s a strong sense of community in Petoskey and it’s one of few towns in northern Michigan with a stable year-round population.”
Rogers said her group met two or three times a week, which at times was difficult as athletes would be out of town for games, and students would have other responsibilities. Sometimes the group’s efforts required Google Documents and digital methods for collaboration. Yet their final presentation talked about population demographics, gaps in the market and financials, and introduced panel investors to pasties, which are savory baked goods, popular in northern Michigan, that are filled with meat and vegetables and topped with gravy.
“I think the lessons we learned are important, especially for people who will be working to present ideas as a part of a complex business project,” Rogers said. “Our idea was 50 pages long. So how do you communicate that in 20 minutes to six people? We needed to be confident in presenting. The class definitely prepared us for communicating our ideas and being genuine.”
MacMillan said this type of experience closely mirrors real-world business presentations and practices.
“Students tell us that after holding their own with the panel, they feel confident in future public speaking experiences in college and in their jobs,” MacMillan said. “Employers have often noted the public speaking and communication skills of our graduates.”
She added working with Ludwinski was a delight, and MacMillan welcomes other alumni to assist in the capstone as well.
“Alumni have enriched each and every one of the business courses that I teach,” MacMillan said. “It’s incredible how often they immediately respond with ‘yes’ when asked to be a panelist, guest speaker or project coach. We may have fewer alumni than most colleges, but maybe because of it, the ones we have are deeply committed to helping the next generation navigate their futures. I continue to be amazed by and grateful for the support of our alumni.”