WILMINGTON – Over one-third of Professor Suzanne Altobello’s business class students are film majors. That tells you something about Wilmington, but also something about what attracts students to Altobello’s class.
“Some of these students went into the film program when it was still a vibrant industry here,” said Altobello. “I think some of them have to kind of course correct. But it’s also about the skills and strengths they have, and how those can really serve local entrepreneurs who need to be creative and innovative in order to survive and grow.”
Altobello teaches business start-up and development at University of North Carolina Wilmington’s Cameron School of Business; it is part of the school’s minor in entrepreneurship and innovation. Altobello’s class pairs students with local entrepreneurs launching new businesses.
In lieu of traditional book-based assignments, students work to develop business plans, social media campaigns and product pitches. These are the “deliverables” students promise to local companies as their main project. Altobello said she developed the course for her MBA students while teaching at the Southern Illinois University in 2008.
“I was so over doing mock audits of Dannon and Coca-Cola and Panera,” Altobello said. “Those companies were boring to me. There were much more exciting things happening in local start-up communities.”
Altobello said she was surprised how little interest the faculty at Southern Illinois had in emerging businesses.
“There were a lot of obstacles to get the faculty involved,” Altobello said. “But the students responded immediately. They were much more curious about how a living, breathing new business worked than how a dinosaur like Coke worked. It’s that curiosity I was after – like I tell my children, ‘I don’t care what you do, just be curious about it. Just be curious.’”
In 2014, Altobello moved to the Wilmington area. Despite having offers from other places around the country, Altobello had other reasons for moving.
“I fell in love with a guy from high school,” Altobello said. “I know, it’s that story. But it happened. We packed up and moved to the beach. I didn’t know what I would do but I knew I’d figure out something. And Wilmington is a pretty nice place to figure it out.”
Altobello found a position at UNCW’s business school – as well as UNC Pembroke – but teaching undergraduates instead of MBA students. Altobello says she continues to teach the class “like a master’s class.” That includes pushing students towards hands-on experience, including what she calls “incentivizing students towards certification.”
Altobello said students “get the option to get their Hootsuite certification for their midterm, and the Google analytics certification for their final. They can choose to take a pen and paper exam, but these test the same skills, and it’s much more beneficial for them.”
The heart of Altobello’s class remains engagement with local start-ups. Students have worked with businesses like Lighthouse Beer and Wine, Legacy Eyewear and Sea Love Sea Salt.
Early in the semester, local entrepreneurs visit Altobello’s class and present their businesses; students pick their favorites. Then, Altobello tries to line students up with their skill-set outside business. Frequently, that means students with a film background.
Jillian Carney, on of Altobello’s students in the spring semester, is a taking the class as part of her minor in entrepreneurship and innovation, but her major is in film. Carney said she wanted to have the business skills necessary for film.
Carney said, “Every film is a little start-up. You need to know how to fund it, how to staff it, how to promote it. So, that’s what we’re learning here.”
Carney and her class partner are working with the Wilmington firm Zero Cares; the local company makes non-toxic deodorant and has worked with Altobello on several classes. The company currently has a UNCW intern, as well.
The “deliverables” Carney promised Zero Cares were a social media campaign and a plan for promotional video, using Carney’s skills as a filmmaker.
“So, for example, we come up with a plan to boost their social media presence,” said Carney. “They have like 140 followers, and they want to get to about 2,000.”
Carney said a previous team from one of Altobello’s earlier classes had made a “very funny” video, but that Zero Cares needed something more focused and geared toward marketing.
Gabrielle Despaigne and John Luck, who are also in this semester’s class, are both film makers as well. Despaigne said she wanted to be a producer.
“Not a lot of people not what a producer even does,” Despaigne said. “They’re really the person that makes a film.”
Luck, who said he wants to pursue freelance filmmaking acknowledged that he would “probably have to get a real job,” while pursuing his passion in the free time. Luck and Despaigne are working with PermitZone, a Myrtle Beach startup that streamlines the permitting process for DIY construction projects.
Altobello said the she’s become invested heavily in both the students and the local businesses. The only drawback to the class, she said, is that both parties get carried away.
“Students tend to go way past what I’ve asked of them,” Altobello said. “Take social media plans – they’re supposed to pitch a strategy, but they usually want to see it through. They’ll stay involved after the class is over. I have to rein them in a little. The businesses, too, get carried away. They get so excited to have someone working with them and involved in their passion, they sometimes forget that these students are still students.”
An example is Graham Freels, a prior student of Altobello’s. Freels produced a video for Zero Cares, when it was doing business as Ozone Layer.
Altobello said, “it might not be the perfect video for a Kickstarter, but the enthusiasm is absolutely undeniable.” Freels went on to work with Zero Cares on their future projects. Altobello said, “when things like that happen, I can say, ‘yeah, that’s why I’m doing this.’”
Watch now: Freels’ video, produced with Dr. Bolduc and the support and equipment of the UNCW Communication Studies department.