Rutgers Business School students share experience of operating business at airport while obtaining degrees
Neel Sai and Ryan Fontanazza were excited to begin consulting for "Jersey Bound," a local products-based store in Newark Liberty International Airport.
They never expected to run the place.
Through a series of unexpected twists, "Jersey Bound" has evolved into a unique boutique: the first entirely Rutgers student-operated business. Sai and Fontanazza control the finances, sales and marketing for the vendor.
“When it comes to starting a business, we had no idea what we were getting involved in,” said Sai, a Rutgers Business School senior.
The two students approached Kevin Lyons, an associate professor in the Department of Supply Chain and Management and Marketing Sciences about getting hands-on experience toward the end of earning their degrees.
Lyons suggested they work at "Jersey Bound," which was a collaboration between several New Jersey organizations.
They both began working as consultants in November, but the groups decided to pull out after finding that the project took too much effort. Sai and Fontanazza had only three weeks to transition the business to Rutgers.
“It was rough,” said Fontanazza, a Rutgers Business School senior. “Neel had to visit family in India, so it was hard to communicate. When we started, students were interested, but not trained, so we had to work the whole store.”
"Jersey Bound" aims to promote the state’s local businesses and artisans, which sometimes get ignored because of New York City’s proximity, Sai said.
“Anyone in New Jersey knows that it’s in the shadow of New York,” he said. “When you land in Newark, they say ‘Welcome to New York.’ This is basically a marketing project for New Jersey, to let people know we have great artists here.”
The store has a social mission as well, Sai said. Several of the products come from nonprofits, such as glassware created by underprivileged youth in Newark and T-shirts printed by individuals with autism.
Their goal for the store is not to ascertain a specific profit margin, but to put New Jersey artisans on the map, Fontanazza said.
Learning the basics of business is part of their purpose as well.
Sai said he enjoyed the challenge of delving into a new project and pulling through the transitionary phase.
Fontanazza said the job gave him out-of-class experience that he would remember long past graduation. He said he no longer takes any aspect of business for granted, from managing suppliers to promoting the store and its products.
“When Apple launches their new iPhone, they spend a lot of time to market it correctly,” he said. “We needed to learn to market the products in the store properly, and we saw firsthand how to plan it all out.”
Another challenge was funding, he said. They were not given financing when they took over the operation, and did not want any students to pay out-of-pocket.
Lyons assisted them with finding funds and generally advised them on how to run the business.
Now that they are more comfortable with their operations, they are looking to expand. Sai said they have reached out to Mason Gross School of the Arts students to discuss getting their products featured in the store.
But time is running out. They both plan to leave "Jersey Bound" after graduation, although Sai said he may remain there for a short time afterward to address other issues.
“We’re still figuring out to what extent the project will remain,” he said. “We’re figuring out lease agreements and things like that, and how to transition to a new set of students.”
John Sanchez, a Rutgers Business School junior, heard about the project via email and now works as a manager at the store part-time.
Apart from day-to-day operations, he works marketing the store and working with suppliers on the back end. He said they were trying to refine the store, adding new chocolate products to inventory as well as considering the addition of jewelry.
Before he began, he assumed the job would be easy. He found out that marketing requires a great deal of trial and error.
“When you’re in a position of marketing, it’s hard to figure out what they want without any history,” he said.
Yet, he relished the opportunity to reach past his comfort zone.
Fontanazza said he similarly appreciated the work. He advised students to maintain relationships with professors and faculty, since they can provide important opportunities.
“When I’m working there and find someone who’s interested in the project, they always say they wish they could have done something like this in school,” he said.
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