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Alumnus encourages students to think like entrepreneurs

March 14, 2018

Alumni Business and Communication Business and Technology Graduate Featured News Stories

Michael Calhoun M’06 knows first-hand that there are various ways to grow and share entrepreneurial ideas — whether you’re part of a corporation or whether you want to start your own business. And he shared his success in both venues with Saint Mary’s undergraduate business students in February.

Calhoun works at C.H. Robinson, an international supply chain firm in the Twin Cities, but started his own company while getting his master’s degree from Saint Mary’s. The Winona native said he was drawn to the Saint Mary’s because of the opportunity to study in Europe, which is where he got the idea to start an online company selling Italian-made leather goods in the U.S.

“While I was getting my master’s degree 12 years ago, Saint Mary’s taught me that classic brick and mortar shops were going to struggle, and the future of retail was in e-commerce - which was spot on.” Calhoun said. “I got a very relevant education at Saint Mary’s.”

After developing a business plan in his entrepreneurship class, he used it to co-found Poppi Italian Leather with his mother. The online Italian leather import and retail business, which now includes a storefront in Rochester, Minn., has been successfully running for 12 years.

“Starting a business is hard and takes a lot of work. I quickly learned that making a large amount of money isn’t easy,” said Calhoun. “My mom runs the business, and it supports her. But I still need to have my own career and have a steady income to support my family.”

Calhoun has been at C.H. Robinson for six years but first learned about the company while at Saint Mary’s. He explained how after he got his master’s degree and was looking for a job he didn’t simply hit the web looking for any analyst job. He specifically targeted C.H. Robinson because of what he learned about them in the Saint Mary’s program.

“I really appreciated that we studied Minnesota-based businesses,” Calhoun said. “We were learning about international and global business in my classes, and C.H. Robinson was referenced frequently. The fact that they’re a good company that’s been around a long time and worthy of talking about inside of a master’s course set me up really well to pursue a career there.”

Starting at C.H. Robinson as a business analyst, Calhoun is now the global customer analytics leader. He talked with Saint Mary’s students about how they can be an entrepreneur right inside of a corporation.

Calhoun references his own experience at C.H. Robinson when he saw an opportunity to grow and decided to risk putting himself out there. He circulated an idea among leaders at the organization saying, “there’s an opportunity in the marketplace to provide e-commerce supply chain solutions that we’re not doing today.” It got people talking, and a few months later the company formed a team across divisions and geographies to figure out the next steps to move forward with an e-commerce supply chain strategy.

“Today’s companies absolutely need people that think and act like entrepreneurs. We need new and better ideas,” Calhoun explained. “Entrepreneurial skills are transferable and can be applied anywhere you’re passionate.”

For a problem-solving lover like him, Calhoun is grateful to work at an organization that supports personal and professional growth. His biggest advice for students was that nothing happens overnight; perseverance pays off, and it takes time to build experience.

“Finding your passion and being determined is super important,” said Calhoun. “Having a supportive culture at work allows ideas to happen. But ultimately you need to work for a company that’s the right fit for you.”