From Textbook to Practice
Students at Valparaiso University can always expect a top-notch learning environment in the classroom with knowledgeable, passionate instructors, but many programs go a step further and provide the kind of learning that can only take place outside of the classroom. Tyler Castongia ’23 and Garrett Daniel ’23 of the College of Business put their classroom knowledge into practice when they chose to consult locally-owned business Mermaid Straw.
The project was part of the Management 470: High Performance Organization class, where students were asked to select from a variety of local businesses that had agreed to participate, including Chicagoland Popcorn, Aster and Gray, and Rock A Block. For Tyler, Garrett, and two other classmates, Mermaid Straw seemed like the best opportunity to become really involved in a company culture and process as consultants.
“Mermaid Straw asked for an NDA to their business practices and finances, so in my head, that meant that they were going to take this very seriously and give us an all-access pass to their business,” Tyler says. “I figured I would get the most out of a company that asked me to sign an NDA.”
It did not take long for Tyler and his classmates to realize that the relationship would be exactly what they had hoped for.
“They took it seriously,” Garrett says. “They gave us a serious opportunity to employ some skills from the class.”
Mermaid Straw is an eco-friendly online retailer with products ranging from reusable straws and flatware, to clothing, accessories, and drinkware. Founded by Lisa and Adam Harrington, the company’s goal is to educate a broader public on the ecological issues of single use plastics, and provide alternative, reusable products that cut down on environmental waste. The company has grown rapidly since 2017, starting in the closet of their spare bedroom and now employing 12 people in their 7,000 square foot warehouse. Today, Mermaid Straw works with clients across the United States and around the world.
Their relationship with the Valpo students proved to be just as positive for them as it was for Tyler and Garrett.
“Working with the Valpo University Business students was such a great experience,” Adam says. “They were so passionate about learning everything there was to know about our company and our brand.”
As consultants, the students met with Mermaid Straw’s management team on a weekly basis, familiarizing themselves with the company’s plans, goals, procedures, and workflow. Armed with this knowledge, and the knowledge they had gained in class, the group set about brainstorming how they could help Lisa and Adam achieve their vision.
“The most challenging part was trying to design interventions for their business, because they are a company that really has their stuff together,” Tyler says. “Their operations and procedures were spotless, so it was really challenging to put together an intervention process that would aid them in the future. It took a lot of brainstorming on our part to come up with something that would help them advance. They’re a good company, and good at what they do, so how do we begin to help them?”
While limited by their NDA in regards to sharing their specific recommendations and Mermaid Straw’s inner workings, Lisa and Adam believe that the fruits of their consulting work will go a long way for the organization.
“They came up with many great ideas, some of which we were able to apply right away, others we plan to introduce in the near future,” Adam says. “Their final presentation was so insightful and well thought out. It was full of very useful information that we will use as we continue to grow.”
For Garrett, who plans to go into construction property management, working with managers at Mermaid Straw provided key insights into some of the challenges his future career may have in store.
“We heard a lot of their stories between management and employees, and becoming okay with being the bad guys sometimes. That means telling people what they should or shouldn’t be doing, or following procedures, which are not necessarily fun things, but important things, because that helps control the culture in the system,” Garrett says. “If you allow a culture to brew on the idea of being too innovative, people stop doing what they should be doing, how they should be doing it. You have to create the space to let that happen sometimes, but not to where it becomes the culture.”
“To be invited into a successful business and apply what we’ve learned in a meaningful way was probably the most important learning experience that I’ve had from a classroom setting,” Tyler says. “It reaffirmed everything we’ve been taught.”
The project was a fantastic example of how Valparaiso University opens doors and gives students the opportunity to take what they learn in the classroom and apply it to the real world in a big way. It was also a great way to make a strong connection with an organization in the community.
“Overall, we were so glad we said yes to this opportunity,” Adam says. “We would not only recommend any other business do the same, but we would also do it again ourselves next year in a heartbeat!”