It is no secret that students live very busy lives. However, it might not be in the way you think.

According to the Bank of Montreal, 41 per cent of Alberta’s post-secondary students said they would like to start their own businesses after graduation, but some students are not willing to wait until they cross the stage. Here, we take a look at how a few students have managed to build their businesses whilst in university, how they balance their work, school and personal lives, and why they decided to take the plunge into their new ventures.


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Ashika Thaker attributes some of her entrepreneurship spirit to her parents who were both business owners. Photo by Lauretta John.

Position:       Co-founder and Chief Marketing Officer,

Education:   Mount Royal University, Bachelor of Business Administration- Major in Marketing, Minor in Innovation and Entrepreneurship, 3rd Year

Founded in November 2016, Unravelled initially began as a project for Enactus Mount Royal– a non-profit organization that inspires students to make world change through entrepreneurial action. The zero-waste yarn company transforms corporately branded t-shirts into balls of yarn. Ashika Thaker and her co-founder Diana Grant-Richmond partner with companies and organizations who have excess corporate t-shirts and turn them into yarn using a templating manufacturing process they designed. These t-shirts that would normally go to landfills, and never break down due to the polyester in the fabric, are then sold as balls of yarn online at the Unravelled Etsy store, in small pop-up markets and a yarn store called Villekulla Handmade in Calgary.

As a third year university student, Thaker manages her full-time course load as well as her business and it is no surprise that some sacrifices had to be made.

“It definitely takes a lot of sacrifices. More sacrifices than I’d say I expected going into it. There’s a very glamorized version of what entrepreneurship looks like for the outside world,” says Thaker.

“I would say it just looks like this amazing, super luxurious lifestyle where people get to run their own lives and get to have all this freedom and it’s not. I think people underestimate how much work it is. It is a 24/7 job.”

Although the 19-year-old is hugely successful, being a student entrepreneur has had its own challenges. She says that one of the toughest parts of owning your own business is getting an honest opinion on it from a wide range of people, even those close to you.

“I think Diana and I really struggled at the start with just being told that “yeah that’s a really great idea, sweetie,” “go for it” but on the side they’d really be saying “that’s never going to work,” says Thaker. “So it took a while for people close to us and people removed from us to be able to honestly say “okay, there’s a hole here and a hole here.” These criticisms, she says, are needed to help a business really grow.

Thaker also faced some personal challenges when the business first started. Being so young, people often did not take her seriously but Thaker has since overcome this by proving she means business.

“I’m not a very tall person and I’m quite young so putting myself in a space where everyone else is five to 10 years older than me or even more sometimes and actually being able to voice my opinion and have it not be put down because of how young I am or the lack of experience I may have in certain things was hard.” says Thaker.

But the young entrepreneur has since overcome that by being confident in herself. And her confidence in her business definitely paid off at the JMH & Co. Launchpad Pitch Competition in April 2017 where Unravelled was awarded $10,000 and plans to continue working on her business and help others understand the issue of textile waste.

“I know that we can’t change the world with selling balls of yarn but we believe in chain effects so if one person buys a ball of yarn and understands the effects of textile waste and changes their purchasing habits and encourages a friend to change their purchasing habits, it just goes on and on and then change is made.”


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 Ryan Wenger at the Barrow Espresso location in the Mount Royal University Bissett School of Business that will soon be moving to the new Riddell Library and Learning Centre. Photo by Lauretta John.

Position:       Founder and owner

Education:   Mount Royal University, Bachelor of Business Administration- Major in General Management Minor in Innovation and Entrepreneurship, 4th Year

After months of trials and innovations, Barrow Espresso served its first cup of coffee in the Mount Royal University Bissett School of Business on Sept. 8, 2016. Since then, business has taken off. Owner and founder Ryan Wenger, a fourth-year university student at Mount Royal started Barrow Espresso as a pilot project and is now moving to two new locations- one at the Marda Loop CSpace and the other at Mount Royal University’s new Riddell Library and Learning Centre.

“When it started it was just me working behind the bar and doing everything. And now I have a staff of six and I’m looking hire a few more.” says Wenger. “The growth has been quite substantial for a company’s first year in operation but the biggest one [is] the expansion to the space outside of the university walls because that will be the next test to see how Barrow does outside of the student population of customers.”

This fast paced growth took Wenger by surprise and he says it’s his biggest achievement so far. So much so that he wouldn’t believe you if you had asked him a year ago if he would be in this position now.

Wenger also cut his university course load down to two courses per semester, which has pushed back his graduation date. This change has allowed him to work on his business full-time and plan for the impending expansion. However, Wenger’s success in entrepreneurship has not come as a surprise and he feels his support network has helped him succeed.

“Being an entrepreneur is in my family, it’s in my DNA almost. I think that my family is really understanding of what it takes to be an entrepreneur. And I’m really lucky to have that. People that go into entrepreneurship really need that support, “ says Wenger.

In addition to support from family, Wenger believes his education has added a lot to his business and values it more than before. “I have been using all of everything that I have studied in business in my own venture,” says Wenger. “I am able to pick up things in the classroom and apply them right away in my own business in the real world.”

Barrow Espresso expects to move into Mount Royal University’s Riddell Library and Learning Centre sometime this fall.


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 Joel Jelinski (left) and Zachary Hartley (right) with some of their custom wine barrel furniture at their warehouse on Forge road in Calgary. Photo by Lauretta John.

Position:       Jelinski:        Co-founder and Chief Executive Officer

                         Hartley:       Co-founder and Chief Operating Officer

Education:   Jelinski:        University of British Columbia (Okanagan), Bachelor of Applied Science- Civil, Engineering, graduated 2016

                         Hartley:       Mount Royal University, Bachelor of Business Administration- Major in General Management, minor in Innovation and Entrepreneurship, graduated 2016

Burgundy Oak first began when Joel Jelinski was just a kid. He started making candle holders out of old wine barrels and selling them at local farmers’ markets when he was around five or six-years-old in Abbotsford, B.C. Jelinski ran his business on the side while he was still in university, which is when he met Zachary Hartley.

Hartley started a company called Smoke Barrel in 2015 after making a smoker out of a wine barrel at his family’s cabin in the Okanagan. Jelinski saw Hartley on an interview with CTV and decided to reach out to him and the two have since decided to merge their ventures.

“It was never really the idea to start a business. The idea was ‘hey this is kind of cool’ and actually I just wanted to build one and try and sell it on Kijiji, but I put a photo on Instagram and the editor at CTV news saw it,” says Hartley.

 “[He] asked a journalist to come interview me on what he thought was my business at the time- which was really just one smoker in my mom’s garage. And I figured well hey if people are going to see it, I need a website, I need some photos, so I kind of just built that. We sold five smokers the first day.”

Although neither Jelinski or Hartley originally thought they would start their own businesses, Burgundy Oak is thriving with their products being carried in over 300 stores in Canada. With the business rapidly growing, Burgundy Oak has outgrown two warehouses in the last six months and have just started selling in stores in the United States.

The rapid growth of the company has been a little intimidating for the young men but they are not letting it slow them down. “We haven’t tripped up too bad so far so, it’s been a good one so far. We’re all on this journey together so it’s been a lot of fun,” says Hartley.

However, Burgundy Oak didn’t always have a team. Hartley and Jelinski both started their ventures on their own and ran it all by themselves.

“In the beginning… we both did everything from manufacturing to accounting to account management, but now we’ve started to build a team and culture,” says Jelinski. “And have people to help us grow those aspects.”

Hartley says that developing the company’s culture has been the best part about the business thus far. “We have a lot of good guys, skilled guys that have bought into our system and are passionate about what they’re doing and love being a part of it.”

 Editor: Logan Peters |

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