November 26, 2020

Growing a startup and business expertise | Master of Business Administration

Lush plants, rich color, wafting fragrance. There is nothing like being in a garden or bringing flowers and greenery into indoor spaces to ignite a connection with nature and a feeling of pure joy.

For MBA students Ariel Palau and Anezka Viskova-Robertson, plants are a passion, and one they hope to turn into a business that connects with those in the Kalamazoo area.

We asked these flower enthusiasts and friends how their business idea came about, how the MBA program is helping them to learn about business and themselves, and how they embrace their role as women entrepreneurs.

Tell us a bit about the business concept that you have been working on. What sparked the idea? What have you done so far? Where do you see it going?

Ariel: Our business is called Plant Social Studio. The idea stemmed from COVID-19’s impact. We were looking for a feel good idea—a pick-me-up. We both have had a passion for growing things and our gardens had been doing so well this summer with all of the sun we’ve been getting. We decided to focus on cut flowers and building vertical hanging gardens for indoor spaces.

Anezka is our resident architect and has already built a few vertical gardens for family and friends. We’ve done a lot of research on different types of flowers and what would best grow in our western Michigan climate. We’ve begun to ramp up our social media game and built a website as well. This summer we started experimenting with a small offering of cut flowers but are looking to scale up our offerings next summer! We know that Plant Social Studio will definitely be a business learning experience, and we’re excited to see if we can make this passion project a source of supplemental income. If we can’t, we definitely don’t mind a yard full of flowers!

How has your experience in the MBA program helped you to pursue this idea?

photo of Anezka wearing a face mask, holding large pink flowerAnezka: Going back to school after a few years of work experience has opened up my perspective on how valuable education is, especially a program like the MBA which covers a broad range of subjects and can really help you understand the corporate world. One of my biggest motivations, however, was to meet likeminded people and create a network, which totally happened! On top of meeting motivated classmates, I learned about corporate America and also how to think strategically as an entrepreneur. What I didn’t expect was to find a great friend like Ariel—somebody who came to study business from a completely different area of expertise with an advanced degree in oboe performance, who is motivated and driven to make a positive impact. It’s the culmination of all of these things that helped us decide to pursue this idea.

Ariel: The opportunity to meet people with different backgrounds has been huge for me, and everyone brings something different to the table: a different skill set, a different perspective, a different background. Anezka is originally from the Czech Republic with a master’s in environmental geology and I’m originally from Florida with a master’s in music performance. Anezka and I would have likely never met if it weren’t for the MBA program, and we’d never have considered starting a venture together.

That’s one of the most interesting aspects about the MBA program to me—the fact that it’s not like other master’s programs where your classmates are all in the same professional world. Different opportunities and ideas present themselves from different people. Some of our classes have included case studies, and many of the cases were about students who met during their MBA programs and then decided to build something together. One day when we were going through a case like this, I turned to Anezka and said, “Why can’t this be us?” The program had really shown us that it was possible.

How has the MBA program helped you to be a better problem solver overall?

Anezka: Going through the MBA program showed me how to use my problem-solving skills in an American setting. I didn’t anticipate that the cultural differences would impact this skill set so heavily when I came from the Czech Republic to America.

Ariel: I’ve learned to view things through different lenses. A marketing perspective on an issue would come up with a different answer than a financial perspective. It’s fun and challenging to ask the same question and come up with different answers based on the hat you’re wearing. This is something that’s extremely helpful when working through the challenges of our venture.

What course in the MBA has had the greatest impact on the way you think about this specific business opportunity? What is another course that you have enjoyed/found valuable and why?

Anezka: Leading People and Organizations with Dr. Melissa Intindola. I took this class during my first semester at WMU and loved the combination of self-study material and in-class discussion. This class introduced me to the basics of corporate culture and theories on leadership. I found these topics fascinating. It showed me that even if growth is organic in a business there also needs to be a healthy base to sustain growth. During this class I also learned how important it is to be ready for change and to embrace it when it occurs. Both of these things planted the seeds for the type of leader I want to be and how would I run my own business one day. Supply Chain Process Management with Dr. Bret Wagner was another course that I enjoyed. This class focused on the manufacturing sector and went through ERP systems. It solidified that manufacturing is not for me but the processes they use in this industry are so interesting and really help it to run seamlessly.

Ariel: Business Venturing with Dr. Laurel Ofstein. This class was all about starting your own business and understanding what makes an idea stick and take off—extremely practical given the venture we’re working on now. The final project was writing a 25-page business plan, which at first sounds painful but ultimately was so helpful because, when will you have the opportunity to learn how to write a business plan and get feedback at this level? If you’re looking to start your own venture, you’ll likely need some type of funding, and lenders or backers are going to ask for that plan! Strategic Management with Dr. David Flanagan is a close second. This course was fascinating because it’s the culmination of every class that you take in the MBA, so you get to call on all of the skills and knowledge you’ve learned throughout your journey, and Dave is just a phenomenal teacher.

Ariel and Anezka in front of a white wall holding a large pink flowerWhat made you want to earn an MBA?

Anezka: Before I went to get my MBA, I gained some professional experience with employers around the Kalamazoo area, and I noticed that my approach to business processes was different in comparison to my coworkers, but I was unable to put my finger on what exactly was different. After two years of trying to fit in, I realized that I need to learn these processes in an academic setting where I could ask questions and learn from others’ work successes and failures.

Ariel: Truly, I wanted to prove to myself and to others that I could do it. Coming from an artistic, musical background, I was always told that I was bad at math, and in my growing mind I associated math with business. Ariel is bad at math therefore she will be bad at business, so an MBA (and anything business-related) was off the table. Yes, there is math in the MBA and in business, but that’s not all that it’s about. There are so many aspects of this program and of the business world that I have learned and benefited from, and I like to think the flipside of that is that the program and business world has also benefited from having someone in it from an artistic background. Those worlds don’t usually collide, especially in academia, and that’s never made sense to me. Both groups, artists and business professionals can benefit from each other’s viewpoints.

How do you see the knowledge acquired during the MBA program applying to your future endeavors?

Anezka: I am confident that with this newly acquired knowledge I am capable of recognizing promising opportunities that are worth investing time and energy into, as well as those that should be avoided for the time being. There is an opportunity cost in everything. For my future career growth, I am hopeful that this degree will enable professional opportunities. It also gives me knowledge to share with others, especially in my current role as a teaching assistant for WMU. I enjoy teaching and think that my experiences in the MBA program will help the students I have in my classes now.

Ariel: Hopefully the knowledge gained during the MBA program will open more doors professionally and make more opportunities available. It goes back to my statement earlier that musicians and business professionals can benefit from each other and create incredible synergies. I don’t know of anyone currently in the School of Music at Western (where I am employed) with both a master’s in music and an MBA. I’m bringing a combination of things to the table that very few have, and I hope that this will help me not only better help my students as an academic advisor but overall help the School of Music and the College of Fine Arts.

There has been significant growth in women in entrepreneurship. What are your thoughts about the growth in women-owned organizations and your own roles in this movement?

Anezka: I think that women are naturally gifted with staying organized while multitasking. We also have a unique perspective in evaluating projects in terms of the “big picture.” This analytical approach takes longer but is overall more thorough and may help avoid major obstacles. I am proud to be a woman in this world and to use my unique perspective to view, analyze and approach anything that comes my way.

Ariel: I’m so excited about the growth and success with women doing anything, and everything in the world. We’re not as underrepresented in the business world as certain articles make it seem, but we’re also not as celebrated as men. It’s time for that to change. I think that Anezka and I are doing our part in our current careers to further this movement and be a part of it—certainly with Plant Social Studio.

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