Innovative entrepreneurial ideas are being “hatched” on a daily basis at a unique Inspiration Lab within the College of Business and Economic Development at The University of Southern Mississippi (USM).
Dubbed “The Hatchery,” this extraordinary space serves as a hub to help align and connect the wealth of entrepreneurship-related resources, knowledge, and vision at the University. By facilitating entrepreneurial experiences, The Hatchery helps increase student opportunities to make their skillsets more relevant, dynamic, adaptable, marketable, and consequentially more valuable in today’s rapidly changing labor market.
No one need sell USM senior Tori Faith Jones on The Hatchery’s benefits. A marketing major from Meridian, Miss., Jones has utilized the lab to develop her own business – “Tori Faith Creations,” while continuing to strategize about other entrepreneurial pursuits.
Located in Scianna Hall on USM’s Hattiesburg campus, The Hatchery opened its doors within the physical confines of the Inspiration Lab in 2022. Although The Hatchery and Inspiration Lab are resources created by faculty in the College of Business and Economic Development, business students are not the only ones taking advantage of the think-tank atmosphere.
“Our mission is to foster a culture of innovation for all,” said James Wilcox, Professor of Practice and Hatchery Director. “And we’re seeing this become a reality as more and more students discover the value of The Hatchery’s resources, mentorship, and experiential learning opportunities.”
Added Wilcox: “Most people, when they think of The Hatchery, they think of the physical space that we have created in Scianna Hall. But really, The Hatchery is a lot bigger than that. The Hatchery is a belief – a belief that every student on campus has what it takes to create economic value; to create social value. The Hatchery is a support system that we’ve created, an ecosystem that supports students as they learn how to create value.”
Assistant Director Serena Buckley points out that The Hatchery currently features two groups of students who comprise the roster of users:
- The Catalyst Initiative – a thriving community of innovators, entrepreneurs, and activators. “On any given week, there are various projects being completed by these students in the Inspiration Lab, whether it be creating components on a 3D printer, carving designs into products using the Glowforge laser cutter, or making buttons to promote a brand,” said Buckley.
- The Founders Society – a group that supports student entrepreneurs balancing academic life with business ownership. “Monthly networking dinners provide camaraderie and growth to members,” said Buckley. “These students also ‘give back’ to the University by coaching aspiring student entrepreneurs on their ideas.”
So, who exactly “hatched” the idea of an Inspiration Lab. And why? Wilcox notes that an email survey was sent out in 2019 in an effort to identify all the stakeholders in the innovation ecosystem that exists at USM. Pockets of innovation were discovered all over campus, including the usual suspects and several unexpected surprises.
“We’d have a professor who, for his creative writing class, would have students writing content for startup websites,” said Wilcox. “And you found that there were all these different areas and kinds of silos of innovation across the campus. But there was no single entity that was tying all of these things together.”
Think of The Hatchery as half makerspace for prototyping and experimentation and half brainstorming zone for collaboration and ideation.
“It is meant to feel very living-room-ish, so that when students come in, there’s a comfort level with that space,” said Wilcox. “It doesn’t feel academic; it doesn’t feel threatening. Students can come in and they can say, ‘you know, I’ve got this idea. I’ve never talked to anybody about this before. I don’t know who to talk to about this.’ And that’s where the journey starts.”
One of the more creative incentives offered by The Hatchery is “Check-Point” – a monthly seed fund opportunity for students. Ideas that meet the “Check-Point” criteria receive $500 to help students jumpstart their plans.
Jones, an honorary member of the Founders Society, earned one of the “Check-Point” awards and is currently working hard to flesh out a new entrepreneurial idea. She stresses that the significance of a creative space like “The Hatchery” cannot be overstated.
“It is important to remember that entrepreneurship is not just an academic major, but a mindset, and to succeed in it you have to take actions to nurture, expand, and thrive in that mindset. You have to set the right environment to do so,” said Jones. “The Hatchery is that entrepreneurial environment where we can express, cultivate, and test ideas so that when the lightning strikes and the light bulb goes off, we have what and who we need not to miss the opportunity.”
Henry Biemann, currently enrolled in the Masters of Public Relations program at USM, also took advantage of the “Check-Point” opportunity. Biemann, who serves as founder and CEO of Military Recruiting Solutions, says the idea for his company started with a pitch at a Hatchery “Check-Point” event. He describes The Hatchery program as a “powerful platform to project an entrepreneur’s idea forward from conception to implementation.”
Biemann, a U.S. Army veteran from Walhalla, S.C., has been attending meetings recently with the Army’s senior leadership to share how his team can help their recruiters not just meet, but exceed their recruiting objectives.
“I have teamed up with New York Times best-selling author and the ‘King of Sales’ Jeffrey Gitomer, and we’re on a mission to supercharge military recruiting,” said Biemann. “We’re combining world class training, real-world answers, and cutting-edge AI technology to empower military recruiters nationwide.
Added Biemann, “It’s not just about meeting recruitment targets, it’s about CRUSHING them. We are proud and excited to help the military win the war for talent and connect with today’s generation with a value proposition that makes the military a compelling choice for American youth.”
As for The Hatchery’s mentors/advisors, Buckley explains that a cross-section of USM educators and Hattiesburg-area professionals lend their expertise.
“The Hatchery’s Advisory Board includes faculty members from disciplines across campus and community leaders in entrepreneurship,” she said. “Our programs incorporate mentoring from faculty members and stakeholders within our entrepreneurship ecosystem. Faculty members also utilize the Inspiration Lab, whether for brainstorming or for prototyping of their own.”
When she first spotted a social media post about a new venture called The Hatchery, Jones never imagined she would one day pay homage to everything the incredible lab has to offer. She believes The Hatchery has merely scratched the surface of its potential.
“The Hatchery is special and provides something truly extraordinary to our city of Hattiesburg, to scholarly seekers, and entrepreneurs far and wide,” said Jones. “In my opinion, continuing to grow The Hatchery is imperative to the growth of our local entrepreneurial community.”
Seems only fitting that a Golden Eagle and budding entrepreneur like Jones would “hatch” an independent business portfolio through a University program.
“The Hatchery has been truly the perfect thing for me and has given me more than I ever knew I needed,” said Jones. “I could not be more grateful for all of the one-of-a-kind experiences, memories, and opportunities it has hatched on campus, in our community and in my life. I am forever hatched.”