Iowa JPEC courses foster creativity and encourage dreams

Caleigh Bemont, a 2017 graduate of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, found her entrepreneurial calling in a University of Iowa John Pappajohn Entrepreneurial Center (Iowa JPEC) classroom.

Bemont graduated with a degree in Journalism and Mass Communication with a certificate in Entrepreneurial Management. As part of her entrepreneurial certificate, Bemont took entrepreneurship courses taught by Iowa JPEC faculty. In Bob Walker and Joe Sulentic’s Entrepreneurial Finance class, Bemont was challenged to come up with a business idea, which led her to create Siblings Empowered. Siblings Empowered is a nonprofit online-based support group that empowers and inspires individuals who have a sibling that are impacted by cancer, death, disabilities, mental illness, and other life adversities. With Iowa JPEC resources and hard work on Bemont’s part, this idea became a full-fledged business in Founders Club, a student business incubator at UI that is housed in the Bedell Entrepreneurship Learning Laboratory (BELL).

Bemont was motivated to start the business out of personal experience. Her younger sister, Brooke, suffered from cancer as a child. Brooke is now cancer-free, but the disease has a lasting impact on the life of her and her family. During childhood, Bemont felt that she had nowhere to express her frustration over her sister’s illness.

“There was no place to go and say “What’s going on?” says Bemont. "I couldn’t talk to my friends about it because it was so serious and I couldn’t blame my sister because she was suffering so badly. I was frustrated, and I just needed a place to talk honestly about what was going on in my life.”

Starting up is rewarding, but not always easy

Although Bemont had a great idea for a business, the process of starting up was not easy. After her semester with Walker and Sulentic, she traveled abroad during the first few months of 2016 in Italy and Australia. Bemont recalls the struggle of doing industry research abroad and coordinating conference calls from different time zones.

When she returned to Iowa City in September 2016, one of Bemont’s Zeta Tau Alpha sorority sisters approached her with ideas to expand upon the business. Bemont then formed a partnership with Bridget Blair, who also shares a personal connection to the business. Without Bridget’s unbreakable commitment, Bemont says the business would not be where it is today. During the next few months, the two pivoted several times, learning important business lessons from fellow student entrepreneurs at the BELL and receiving honest feedback from mentors Jeff Nock and Elizabeth Hallgren, both of whom are Iowa JPEC lecturers.

One of the things Bemont liked best about being involved in Founders Club is the close-knit bond she has with other founders. She says, “Half of the mentoring I got at the BELL was from other student entrepreneurs who dealt with the same issues. When I was preparing my elevator pitch for a competition, it was Matt Rooda (CEO, SwineTech) who sat down and helped me. It was because of his help, along with assistance from other members, that I did so well.”

Following passions, changing lives

In December 2016, Bemont traveled to Saint Louis University to compete in SLU’s “Real” Elevator Pitch Competition, where she placed 3rd in the nonprofit category and won $1,000 to advance her company. Bemont met many influential business leaders in Saint Louis and networked with student entrepreneurs from universities throughout the country. She says she was inspired by her peers’ passion for their business and enjoyed learning about student business incubator programs at other schools.

The competition served as Siblings Empowered’s official launch and represents an early victory for Bemont and Blair. The duo boosted their community presence in the following months with a siblings event at Lower City Park in late April of 2017. The event allowed people interested in Siblings Empowered to meet the founders in person and learn more about their impact goals.

She and Bridget Blair continued to grow the business after graduation, something they could not do without support from Iowa JPEC and their families. In fact, Bemont says that her family’s support has been crucial to her success.

“My family is so awesome. Brooke has been especially supportive. Not only did she beat cancer, but she is now encouraging me to follow my passion and make an impact," says Bemont. "My sorority sisters have been helpful, too. They rally around me and show genuine interest in what I’m doing and how the business is progressing.”

As Bemont approached graduation, she looked back at her time and progress at UI. She was excited about receiving her diploma, but was sad to leave. She says, "the support Iowa gave me makes it hard to say good-bye.”