Columbia Faculty Member Roasts Coffee, Serves Knowledge
Columbia College Chicago Associate Professor of Instruction Clayton Smith’s professional experience ranges from arts management to publishing and consulting independent authors. More recently, he’s helping run a family-owned coffee roasting business while simultaneously teaching Business & Entrepreneurship. His background in digital media marketing and entrepreneurship allows him to teach a wide array of courses at Columbia including Digital Media Strategies, Marketing Data Analytics, Information Management, Accounting, Finance, Entertainment Marketing, Presenting the Performing Arts, and Events Management: Practicum.
When did you first become interested in business and/or entrepreneurship?
I’ve always been pretty entrepreneurial. I was definitely a lemonade-stand-and-haunted-house kid, always trying to monetize some product or experience. Even though my career has taken me through various arts management positions at organizations like Lyric Opera, Goodman Theatre, and Ticketmaster—and, of course, at Columbia, my home for the last seven years—I’ve always supplemented my professional timeline with smaller entrepreneurial endeavors, including a publishing services and consultancy company for independent authors called Dapper Press, and now a recently-launched family-owned coffee roasting company, Reconstruction Coffee Roasters.
What is your experience in the field? How do you bring your experiences into the classroom as a teacher?
I think that one of the most rewarding aspects of being an entrepreneur is that you’re forced to wear a lot of different hats, and then to put a lot of different hats on top of those hats. While my full-time career history has focused mainly on digital and social media marketing, my entrepreneurial endeavors have thrown me into the worlds of product development, accounting, human resources, events management, launch strategy, business analytics, and a dozen other areas that I wouldn’t normally have gotten the opportunity to work in. This broad collection of experiences means that not only am I well-equipped to serve as a generalist in my department, teaching everything from Accounting and Finance to Marketing Data Analytics to Presenting the Performing Arts… but it also means that I’m pretty uniquely positioned to share insights on how these sometimes-seemingly disparate and disconnected areas really do overlap in important and meaningful ways. One of my goals each semester is to give my students a holistic view of how their focus connects and relates to other functions of their industry, and my background in entrepreneurship really helps me to be effective in that area.
Why did you choose Columbia College Chicago?
Honestly, Columbia and I chose each other! I started at Columbia as a graduate student, where I earned my Master of Arts Management degree in 2010. I chose the graduate program because even from where I lived in Missouri, it really spoke to specifically what I wanted to do for a career, which was to work in marketing for a performing arts organization like the Goodman. Not long after I graduated, I was approached by the department about teaching as an adjunct, and I very gladly jumped on board. A few years later, the then-Chair of the department asked if I’d be willing to leave my job as Social Media Manager at Ticketmaster and come teach at Columbia full-time. To be honest, it was a challenging decision—completely changing career tracks and dealing with the financial implications of doing that isn’t an easy thing to do—but it was really the students that sealed the deal for me. Columbia attracts such incredibly talented students who are thoughtful and sharp and ambitious… the chance to work with these students in a more meaningful way is really what closed the deal for me.
What is the greatest challenge of working in Business and Entrepreneurship today? How have you approached overcoming that challenge?
We launched Reconstruction Coffee Roasters the first week of September, so this may be an obvious answer, but the greatest challenge is the pandemic. We had originally planned to open in early 2019, and the coronavirus completely derailed that plan. We had to make some significant adjustments, not only to our timeline, but to our business model. The ability to adapt quickly has paid off for us, though, because we’re up and running, and so far, things are going really well. I think the reason we were able to launch at all is because we had approached the endeavor with a lean start-up model the whole time, which essentially means that our business is designed to be nimble and adaptable, and able to operate on a small budget. It also helped that we worked with a construction company that was committed to finishing our new-construction building, even though it meant that the full crew was pared down to just a team of two brothers who worked tirelessly to get the building finished.
One of the other things that I think has helped guard against potential pandemic fallout is that, because of the lean start-up model, we had already prepared several different additional revenue streams, so that we wouldn’t have to rely on just one. We’ve been putting those streams to work, and that additional foresight has been invaluable.
Can you tell me about any projects you are currently working on (inside or outside of Columbia)?
Reconstruction Coffee Roasters is really the major non-Columbia project right now! It’s a business I started along with my wife, Erin, and my sister, Emily, and it’s a side hustle for each of us, so we’re constantly rotating focus and changing hands, and it’s keeping us really busy. At Reconstruction, we purchase sustainably-sourced, specialty-grade green coffee beans from small-share farmers all over the world, and we roast them in our brand new roastery in my small hometown of Villa Ridge, Missouri. And yes, I do live in Missouri now, after eleven years in Chicago, and in non-pandemic times, I commute to Chicago every week to teach my classes and work with my colleagues at Columbia. We’re the first coffee roastery in our area, and even just a few weeks in, we already have a handful of wholesale accounts and are doing some really solid retail business, so Reconstruction is definitely doing a good job of filling my free time.
I have to say that as much as my varied experience had helped me deliver a holistic business experience to my students, my time working with my students and my colleagues at Columbia has equipped me to run a successful start-up. I’m constantly inspired by their work ethic, by their creativity, and by their drive… it’s an almost-tangible force that keeps me moving forward.
What advice do you have for students interested in pursuing Business and Entrepreneurship?
Whatever you think you can do, you honestly can do. I know that probably sounds cliché, but there is honestly no limit to what you can do. The trick is to meet the right people, to learn the right skills, and to have the right determination. I’ve taught at a few other schools, and I can wholeheartedly say, without any reservation, that the Business and Entrepreneurship Department at Columbia is filled to the brim with a special mix of teachers and students who are hungry, who are determined, who are creative, and who are the right people to connect with to make your entrepreneurial dream come true. I mean that with all of my heart.