Business students get firsthand advice from local entrepreneurs
More than Radford business students recently got firsthand lessons on the challenges facing today’s entrepreneurs, straight from a pair of local professionals who’ve successfully weathered an array of recent storms from the pandemic to inflation.
That Oct. 16 meeting was part of an ongoing discussion, hosted annually at Kyle Hall by the Department of Economics to mark World Food Day, which is observed every fall by the member states of the United Nations and which recognizes the founding of the UN Food and Agriculture Organization.
Across 90 minutes, the two guests – Keith Weltens, co-owner and chief operating officer of Long Way Brewing in Radford, Virginia, and Seth Locklear, co-founder and brewhouse manager of Iron Tree Brewing in Christiansburg, Virginia – discussed business topics as well as this year’s theme, “Water is Life, Water is Food.”
Weltens said Long Way draws from the New River and is “very fortunate in that the water never stops … and it’s very well maintained. So, we don’t have a lack of water, but certainly the quality of that water is important.”
In a further regional tie, Weltens’ Long Way Brewing is located in Radford’s former Seventh Day Adventist Church on Second Street and partners in that spot with the Radford Fairlawn Daily Bread, a nonprofit organization that provides free meals to those in need.
Both breweries debuted under the shadow of the coronavirus pandemic – Long Way opened its doors in December 2020, and Iron Tree followed in 2021.
“Our timing worked out well,” Locklear explained, saying that Iron Tree launched “right as Covid regulations were starting to open up.
“We had nice groups from Christiansburg, ready to actually go out and do something, and that helped us get started,” he said.
During the question-and-answer session, students asked Weltens and Locklear about brewery start-up costs, supply chain issues, the current role of marketing and advertising, the influence of social media and the specific choice by both owners to locate their businesses in the New River Valley.
“To live in Blacksburg costs the same as to live in Austin, Texas. Let that sink in. Austin, Texas is godawful expensive,” Weltens said. “Radford is half that.
“So, can you afford the opportunities that Blacksburg would give you? Or would you have to look at opening up something else somewhere else?” he asked, reminding them that as business students with easy access to information technology, they’re in a unique position to find out most things they need to know to start their own enterprises and calculate the budgets they’ll need to go forward.
“You will figure that out because that’s your investment in you,” Weltens told them.
Locklear advised the audience to “know your skill set” and use it to their advantage. He holds a degree in construction management and got into the business as a home brewer who was encouraged by friends who liked his product.
“Getting into brewing was a huge jump for me, coming from the construction industry,” he recalled. “The skills that I’ve learned, I’ve been able to use. We did all the renovation work ourselves in our building, and my wife is an interior designer, so we were able to make it what it is now.”
The World Food Day Lecture Symposium is a faculty-led, student-run lecture series currently coordinated by Assistant Professor of Economics Jennifer Elias. She said this year’s event was primarily attended by students studying economics, management, entrepreneurship and higher education, but it’s open to all.
“We’re always looking for new ways to demonstrate that economics is everywhere, and this event allowed us to combine that message with some helpful advice from our guest speakers,” Elias said. “Most of the questions revolved around either setting up, financing or marketing a business, so I think that many of our students are looking to become business owners in the future.”
Steven Ingram, a first-semester freshman and marketing major from Mechanicsville, Virginia, was one of the attendees, and he said he found himself drawn into the discussion.
“I’m interested in advertising and ad design, creative problem solving,” he noted. “Part of the reason I liked hearing about their experiences is … they’re people who have gone through it themselves, and they have points of view on stuff I hadn’t even thought about.
“When I think of advertisement, I think of Google ads and Bing. Actually thinking about the people and the community isn’t something that had occurred to me until he [Locklear] talked about how local promotion and word-of-mouth worked for him.
“Being here and hearing people that have started their own businesses is super cool, and they’ve done it in a community that I feel like I’m a part of now,” Ingram said.
“I came for the class credit, but I’m leaving with a lot more than that.”