Talking about wine is a sure-fire way to get college students to pay attention in class. At least that’s what business program chair Wendy Topp has discovered at Minnesota School of Business-St. Cloud (MSB).
Topp owns and operates TreeFrog Orchard and Vineyard north of Nisswa and teaches full time at MSB. He says that the reality of his business translates to every single class.
“We are talking about taking risks, about success, even about the weather!” Topp explains. All of these practical elements take hold with the students, Topp maintains, whereas textbooks can be abstract.
“There are things you have control over and things you don’t,” he advises. “You still have to conduct business.”
The idea for his TreeFrog Orchard came as result of his MBA studies at Minnesota School of Business. While preparing a business plan for a class, Topp consulted an agricultural expert from the University of Minnesota and decided he could develop his hobby into a functioning orchard and vineyard. He owns 60 acres and has 240 apple trees and 500 grape vines. Currently the labor is all supplied by family, including his new wife Tambera (an admissions representative at MSB). Within a year or two he expects to be bonded for sales, but the real work comes later after his retirement.
Topp has been teaching at MSB since 2005 and became the chairperson of the business department in 2006. The highlight of his teaching is seeing students bloom in confidence and professionalism. He enjoys a mixture of program students in his business classes because they bring a variety of viewpoints. However, all students, he says, need help with communication and social skills.
That is why he focuses on presentations throughout the quarter in every class and even uses a verbal presentation ice-breaker on the very first day.
“It’s kind of like the old game of telephone,” he explains. “It’s called Rory’s Story Cubes and each student has to roll the dice, which are patterned with icons. Then they say their name, make up a line or two of a story to go along with the image, and pass it on.”
The next student in line must repeat the person’s name next to them, roll the dice and add to the story, adding their name as well, and around the room it goes. At the end, Topp asks the students to note where communication broke down or became confused.
This, too, is real world business, Topp notes. Being able to communicate clearly with customers, suppliers and employees is a necessary tool for success.
Until recently Topp was also the Collegiate DECA advisor on campus. DECA students have the opportunity—and responsibility—to do community service, compete in simulated professional settings and network. Topp is proud of the St. Cloud students, two of whom have held state office positions as President and Vice-President, and four who are headed to California in a few weeks to compete at the national level. DECA students have also volunteered their labor at his farm in the past.
His students never seem to tire of stories of the wine-making business—especially when inquiring about samples!