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Yowell: Relationships the building blocks

4/5/2012

By DIANE GASPER-O'BRIEN

By DIANE GASPER-O'BRIEN

dobrien@dailynews.net

Follow your passion, and follow through on your promises. Find a way around obstacles you are sure to encounter, and never give up.

Those were just a few pieces of advice Skip Yowell gave students Wednesday afternoon in the Robbins Center at Fort Hays State University.

"You don't always have to spend a lot of money, but (instead) build relationships," added Yowell, co-founder of JanSport backpacks and outdoor gear who was in town participating in FHSU's Entrepreneur Direct Series.

The series was started in 2010 because "we thought it was a way to expose students to successful entrepreneurs and entrepreneurship," said Mark Bannister, dean of the College of Business and Leadership at FHSU.

"By bringing successful entrepreneurs to campus, it's a way for our students to learn, to build relations with highly successful individuals," he added.

Students and adults definitely learned a few things from Yowell, laid-back in his approach.

"I thought it was really interesting, and entertaining," said Katie Strand, a senior from Venango, Neb. "He gave a lot of good points, just in his (everyday) talk. You forget those things sometimes because all you think about is making money."

Yowell, who lived in Gove County when he was young before moving to Great Bend, said all he wanted to do was be outdoors, so he figured out a way to make money following his dream.

Now, he is head of one of the largest retail companies in the country.

Strand was a walking advertisement for Yowell's company as she approached him afterward with an orange JanSport backpack on her back.

Strand, whose major is business marketing, said she thought it was "cool" to meet the maker of her backpack, and she was quick to praise the quality of the product.

"I've had this backpack for eight years, and my brother had it for eight years before me," she said with a laugh.

"I've tested it, believe me," Strand added. "I've crammed books in it, and it's held up."

When she was young, Strand said, she sported her mom's JanSport backpack "that she had in college, I think back in the 1970s."

Yowell and his cousin, Murray Pletz, started JanSport in Seattle in 1967, naming it after Pletz's girlfriend, Jan Lewis, who sewed for them.

They started with making backpacks and later designed the domed tent.

It's been a learning experience every step of the way, Yowell told Wednesday's audience that also included business leaders in the community.

"It's OK sometimes to make some mistakes," said Yowell, who owns a home in St. Peter in Graham County. "You learn from your mistakes."

Strand said she will take something from the presentation that she hadn't expected hearing.

"I learned a lot about making sure that when I go job hunt, I make sure it's something I enjoy doing instead of just about making a lot of money," she said.

Bannister, who has been involved in economic development in Kansas for more than 25 years, said "small business typically adds jobs in America."

"That really drives this country," he said, adding that, as a college dean, he welcomes the challenge of offering that opportunity to students. FHSU now has a minor in entrepreneurship.

"I strongly believe," Bannister said, "that the College of Business and Leadership has to take a leading role to develop entrepreneurs who will serve western Kansas and beyond."