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Igniting Innovation

Handy Hats

From lemonade stands and babysitting to making and selling handmade string bracelets, Dani Ruffolo’s entrepreneurial inclination was evident long before she stepped foot on the University of Dayton campus.

“There were so many lemonade stands,” Ruffolo said, smiling. “I was definitely creative-minded as a kid.”

That creative-minded kid is now a 22-year-old business owner with a patent for a product she developed as part of her sophomore experience class in the entrepreneurship program. Handy Hats — a hat with a small, hidden, interior pouch designed to carry an ID, house key, money or other small item — was pitched to the class and selected as one of 16 projects developed that semester.   

“I didn’t like carrying around a lanyard or a big, bulky purse,” Ruffolo said. “I wanted to come up with a product that people would really use, and everybody wears hats, whether it’s students rolling out of bed for an 8 a.m. class or fans supporting their favorite team. 

While the product offered a practical solution to a common problem, Ruffolo wasn’t initially looking beyond the end of the school year. 

“I did not think I would carry on with it after the semester,” she said. “I just wanted to sell enough hats to make a profit.”

Making a profit has become the rule, not the exception, in the sophomore experience course.

“It's my fourth year teaching, and we’ve only had one team that didn’t break even,” said Vincent Lewis, director of the L. William Crotty Center for Entrepreneurial Leadership.

The semester begins with each student making a 60-second elevator pitch to the class. The ideas are scored by the students, who act as investors. The winning pitches become microbusinesses with a $5,000 loan from the Crotty Center. Students, like Ruffolo, select a team composed of their fellow classmates and develop and run their business for the remainder of the year. After the team breaks even, the profit is divided among a selected charity (20 percent), the student experience fund (20 percent) and a bonus pool (10 percent), with the team earning the remaining 50 percent.

Now a senior, Ruffolo — who completed all her graduation requirements — is working on her business full-time as part of the University’s experiential learning program. It’s just one other way the University of Dayton, whose entrepreneurship program is consistently ranked in the top 25 in the nation, walks the walk.

“We recently had an AACSB peer review committee here. In their comments, they said that ‘a lot of universities talk about experiential learning, but you guys live it. It’s cultural; it’s in your DNA,’” Lewis said. “They are right. The idea of practical wisdom is so critical. It truly is part of who we are.”

William Crotty Center for Entrepreneurial Leadership by the Numbers
  • 1 – First and only multi-site, global pitch competition at the collegiate level
  • 4 – Fourth largest student-run business in the country
  • 100 – Percent of entrepreneurship majors start and run a business
  • 131 – New ventures created by program alumni in the last 10 years, with $21.6 million in funding.