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From campus to career: the impact of the Alumni Market

The Alumni Market offers alumni opportunities unmatched by any other university in the nation.
Image by Emily Urfer
McNamara Alumni Center captured on Sunday, Dec. 5, 2021.

The University of Minnesota Alumni Market, founded in 2017 with 14 businesses, has expanded to a massive coalition of over 170 alumni businesses and services both online and in-store at the McNamara Alumni Center. 

The Alumni Market features everything from apparel and travel items to services like career coaching.

Lisa Lewis, president and CEO of the University’s Alumni Association (UMAA), said the market connects alumni businesses and allows them to build a community of support while showcasing new products and services. The UMAA is the only organization with this type of market in the country. 

“We are building this extraordinary, loyal and large alumni community that is going to hold this university in a good place for the rest of their lives,” Lewis said. 

Lisa Huber, the vice president of marketing and business development at the Alumni Association, said the market is not just limited to the Twin Cities campus. Other University campuses, like Morris and Duluth, have alumni entrepreneurs featured as well.

The market carries actual products available both in-store and online.

“The store became brick-and-mortar a year ago when we realized that people just really wanted to touch and see, and online wasn’t serving their curiosity anymore,” Huber said. 

Lewis said the website recently added a directory listing where all of the businesses are included alongside alumni who provide services, such as lawyers and consultants. 

Lewis added the Alumni Association holds various events where entrepreneurs from the market can meet and build relationships with one another, like the Annual Celebration. 

According to Lewis, students can sometimes have trouble passing from a student entrepreneurial ecosystem, with all of the resources the University provides, to an alumni entrepreneurial system.

Lewis said the market allows alumni to make this transition in a smooth way where alumni can stay connected. She highlighted the market hones in on the trend of supporting small businesses.

Lewis added spreading the word about the market and helping people understand how it is special helps support the market and its mission. 

“It’s about the people and all the ways that you can see the humans behind these businesses,” Huber said. 

Alumni entrepreneurs share the benefits of the market

Umut Kaplan, an alumni entrepreneur, has his business, Coccinella, featured in the market and expressed his gratitude for the market’s networking events.

“You get to interact with people to share about your business, and that has been wonderful,” Kaplan said.

Coccinella is a business sharing the traditions of the Mediterranean with the United States. They sell products like olive oil, textiles and handcrafted soaps.

Junita Flowers, an alumni entrepreneur who founded Junita’s Jar, a mission-driven cookie company, emphasized the importance of networking in her career. 

“Networking is so vitally important to building your business,” Flowers said. “If you don’t have relationships, then you have just a transactional business that doesn’t go deeper, and you don’t get to serve the mission that your business was set up to serve.”

Kaplan highlighted the market’s impact on building business relationships.

“The alumni market opens up all those channels to use where we can get to build those relationships,” Kaplan said. “It is a direct impact for success, like the growth of our business.” 

According to Flowers, being part of the market has opened doors that have allowed her to build relationships and do business beyond the market itself. Many outlets, including Target, carry Junita’s Jar. 

Natalie Koelln, the alumni founder of Made in Minn, an embroidery company, said the market played a key role in helping pivot her career from the corporate to the entrepreneurial world, adding they have become one of the business’ top wholesale clients.

“I saw them and reached out, and I think they responded right away,” Koelln said.

Koelln said the market provides her with unique promotional opportunities other distribution channels have not, including emails highlighting her products and promotion in the Minnesota Alumni Magazine last September. 

Paul Dixon, the alumni publisher and co-owner of Papa Lemon Books, a third-grade-reading-level historical fiction series, said the market has allowed his business to be differentiated from other book companies in a competitive industry. 

“It is a way of being differentiated versus just being on a Barnes and Noble or an Amazon site,” Dixon said. 

According to Dixon, there is something both “magical” and “mystical” about staying connected with the University and other former alumni through the market. 

“The more you stay connected with people, you never know how you’ll be able to help them or they’ll be able to help you one day, and I just find it fascinating how all those things can play themselves out,” Dixon said. 

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