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From let to right: FEW faculty advisor Lee Sanning; Elliott Crane ’14; Signe Burke ’14; Murugappan Venkat ’12. Bootcamp mentor, Christian Hölljes, founder and CEO of Newgent technologies.

There are numerous ways in which busy college students take a break from their academic studies and “chill out.” Some might exercise, listen to their iPods or sit on the couch, watching TV. However, a group of clever Whitman students created an alternative product to help stressed out students relax. And the product is as easy to use as chewing a stick of gum.

Called Chill Chew, the product is in fact gum, one that will literally relax you.

The Whitman students behind Chill Chew belong to Future Entrepreneurs of Whitman (FEW). And the group’s business idea won first prize at the 2012 Pacific Northwest Economic Region Business Ideas Competition (PNWERBIC).

FEW faculty advisor Lee Sanning, assistant professor of economics, remembers “sleeping really well that night” he sampled the gum, which contains valerian root extract, said to have sedative and anxiolytic (anxiety-relieving) effects.

Thirty-four teams from colleges and universities around the Pacific Northwest entered the 2012 PNWER-BIC, and Whitman was one of only four colleges selected as a winner.

The selection process was based upon video submissions of the students pitching their entrepreneurial ideas. Having won, three of the 10 members of FEW attended an entrepreneurial boot camp May 30 through June 1 at Royal Roads University in Victoria, BC. 

“They will receive elite coaching and mentoring from high-flyers in the business scene,” Sanning said.  “Experts provide the students with advice in finance/accounting, management, intellectual property and legal, marketing, venture capital.”

Of the four winning teams, three come from big universities with thriving business schools: University of Puget Sound, University of Regina and the host Royal Roads University. FEW is the only team from a small liberal arts college, a testament to the experiential learning opportunities offered at Whitman.

“There is not a strong association between small liberal arts schools and the business world, yet schools like Whitman prepare their students very well for business leadership positions,” said Signe Burke ’14, one of the FEW members representing Whitman at the conference.

“Liberal arts students know hard work, team work, and smart work, which are invaluable in the business world. Whitman does not teach its students business management, marketing, or PR and HR strategies; Whitman teaches its students how to think.”

That a team from Whitman won despite the college not having a business school, is a testament, Sanning said, to the student’s general aptitude and creativity.

“It shows that Whitman students can be as competitive or successful as anyone attending a business school,” Sanning said. “To come up with a product and create a three-minute pitch video shows the well- roundedness of Whitman students.”

This well-roundedness is what led to the concept of Chill Chew. However, during their weekly meetings last semester the members of FEW realized how difficult and messy the creative process can become.

chill chew gum logo

“The first thing we had to do was come up with a product we wanted to sell,” said Elliot Crane ’14, also attending the conference. “This was by far the most frustrating part of the process. Tensions rose, people yelled, some took sides, and others sat back in their seats, smiling and enjoying the bouts.

“We learned that there are two basic methods to come up with an idea, which are often combined. You can start from scratch and come up with an entirely new, revolutionary product or you can modify an existing one enough for it to be considered a new product. We decided that modifying gum to make it useful as a natural relaxant was the best course of action.”

After the product was decided upon, students used a kit to make the gum, and picked up some valerian root at Andy’s Market in College Place. To enhance what was described as a “moldy raspberry taste,” Sanning said the students added mint to flavor their product.

During the semester, the students polished their product pitch with the help of Joe Jacobs from the Washington Small Business Development Office in Walla Walla. Working with a local business leader added another layer to the experience.

“Working on Chill Chew has given me a greater appreciation for the skills I learn in the classroom,” said Burke. “I learned to apply academic concepts to the real world, and to be confident in my own abilities. This experience will allow me to test limits, think outside-the-box, and take risks in my other classes and in my future career.”

—Edward Weinman

Members of FEW: Elliott Crane ’14 (Seattle, Wash.), Signe Burke ’14 (Boulder, Calif.) and Murugappan Venkat ’12 (Los Altos, Calif) all attended the conference. Other FEW members: Shanglun Wang ’13 (Little Rock, Ark.), Mariah R Billey ’14 (Seattle, Wash.), Wilbur Martin, Chelsea Darlington ’14 (Tacoma, Wash.), Thanh Huynh ’15 (Seattle, Wash.), Spencer Corwin ’14 (Laguna Beach, Calif.), Isabel Zarate ’14 (Moxee, Wash.) Faculty Advisors:  Pete Parcells and Lee Sanning.