Rebecca Runyon is 23 years old, and she has already started two businesses, sold a business and written a children’s book about entrepreneurship — all with the goals of teaching young people to be business owners and making the world a better place in the process.
Runyon’s efforts earned her the 2021 Think Big Award from the Iowa Small Business Development Center.
Dave Biedenbach, regional director of the Iowa State University SBDC, nominated Runyon for the award.
“Rebecca has and continues to demonstrate her entrepreneurial spirit and determination and is always willing to help and advocate for women-owned businesses and young entrepreneurs in our growing ecosystem,” Biedenbach said in a news release.
“When I came to Iowa State after growing up on my family’s dairy farm near Clinton, I never really saw myself as an entrepreneur,” Runyon said.
Runyon had her own herd of cattle since she was 9 years old, and she kept financial records on that, but she didn’t see business as a career she’d be interested in.
That began to change at the end of her freshman year at ISU.
“I was seeing how business was actually something that could be used in society to make a positive social change in the world,” Runyon said.
She began working on ideas and taking entrepreneurship classes. That’s when her idea for an ice cream shop called Bessie’s Parlor started to form.
She wanted to go back to Clinton and start an ice cream business on her family’s dairy farm, but she wasn’t planning to move back to Clinton quite yet.
“I’d been bitten by the entrepreneurial bug at that point,” she said.
During her junior year at Iowa State, Runyon launched a different company called Lunchsox.
“I was selling wool socks online to provide meals for kids in need, on a global and local level,” she said.
Prior to launching Lunchsox in 2017, Runyon had spent the summer on a mission trip in Zimbabwe. One component of that experience was working with orphans at a critical care center, where she saw the need for nutritious meals there.
“I can’t focus when I’m hungry, so how can we expect these kids to learn when they’re hungry?” she said. “At first, the profits were going to that program I worked with in Africa.”
In 2018, after learning that one in six American children face hunger, she decided to fund a Back Buddy weekend meal program in her hometown of Clinton.
The next year, the funding started going to the Iowa Homeless Youth Center in Des Moines.
“They are working on a project for a rooftop garden, where kids at the center receive meals from what they’re growing in the garden,” she said.
“Also they have a partnership with Hy-Vee, so the kids receive the nourishment, but they also get hands-on learning which is around the themes of entrepreneurship as the kids have Hy-Vee as a customer they’re selling their produce to.”
In February of 2020, Runyon sold Lunchsox to Kristin Obbink, of Ames, who is continuing to use some of the profits to feed hungry children.
“She’s continuing on with that mission, and it’s been very cool to watch my company continue to grow without me having anything to do with the day-to-day,” Runyon said.
Selling Lunchsox was just one of the big events that happened for Runyon in 2020.
“It was a wild year,” she said. “I sold Lunchsox in February, in March COVID hit, I got engaged and I was planning to open Bessie’s Parlor as a storefront in Ames in the summer.”
Since restaurants were shut down at that time, she decided to hold off on the storefront. Instead, she collaborated with another Iowa State student, who was making ice cream in her hometown a couple hours from Ames.
“She was doing ice cream and had the commercial space, plus she was coming to Ames regularly,” Runyon said. “So for the past two Christmases, I’ve done batches with her. She was producing the ice cream in her facility.”
In January, Runyon took a position with Iowa State directing an innovation and entrepreneurship academy.
“That is keeping me very busy,” she said. “I’m evaluating what that means for my ice cream business. Perhaps I’ll do another batch at Christmastime, and I’ll have a handle on this new job.”
The transition has Runyon reflecting on why she wanted to have an ice cream shop in the first place — “aside from the fact that everyone loves ice cream and I grew up on a dairy farm,” she said.
One of Runyon’s goals with Bessie’s Parlor was to teach others about entrepreneurship through the lens of an ice cream shop. By providing summer jobs for high school students, she planned to teach them skills that would propel them forward into their careers.
“I firmly believe that entrepreneurship needs to be taught hands-on,” she said. “That was my purpose for creating the company.”
With the pandemic putting the damper on the ice cream shop, Runyon was still able to conduct a weekly connection with high school girls from across the country.
“The curriculum would have been delivered to high-schoolers working at the shop, but we were still able to deliver that program,” Runyon said. “It combines a whole bunch of different facets together through ice cream.”
Now that Runyon is working at Iowa State, she’s able to teach entrepreneurship through experiential means. It’s a little bit older age group than she was planning on for Bessie’s Parlor, but she’s finding fulfillment in teaching the college age students.
“The takeaway is that I care about entrepreneurship. I care about people,” Runyon said. “Whatever my career looks like, it will include that. If ice cream is how it will look going forward, that’s cool. And if not, I’m sure there will be something else.”
To keep her supply chain closer to home, Runyon is looking for a space in Ames to make Bessie’s Parlor ice cream. Since commercial ice cream making must meet several regulations, it requires a certified kitchen.
“If there’s a cafe that doesn’t need their equipment one day a week or evenings or during off times when I could use that space to make the ice cream, it would be great,” she said.
Runyon has also published a children’s book about Bessie’s Parlor titled “The Best Ice Cream Ever Licked.” She was in the honors program at Iowa State, which required a special component at the end of four years related to the student’s area of study. Runyon’s major was agricultural studies and her minor was entrepreneurial studies.
“I decided to write a children’s book that educated little kids about ag entrepreneurship,” Runyon said. “It’s very autobiographical in nature. It’s very close to my own personal story.”
When Runyon was in fourth grade, she asked Santa for a Jersey calf, although her family raised Holsteins, the quintessential black-and-white dairy cows.
“I thought the Jersey calves were really cute, they were little and brown,” she said.
Instead of a calf, Santa brought Runyon two pregnant Jersey cows, so her herd was quickly off to a good start.
“It was a way better deal than what I asked Santa for,” she said.
Bessie’s Parlor is named after one of her family’s Holstein cows. “Parlor” has a double meaning — it refers to an ice cream parlor and it also has an ag connection. A milking parlor is a specially configured space where cows are milked.
Runyon has read her book to students at several elementary schools and has had great conversations with kids about starting their own businesses.
The proceeds from the book sales on Amazon are used to provide copies of the book to libraries and schools.
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