The Close School’s Cool Scoop

Posted in Crosswalk, Winter/Spring 2015

Eric Bassett joined the Close School of Entrepreneurship’s first-ever entering class to learn how to keep innovation alive in his family’s century-old ice cream business.

It’s 7 a.m. and Reading Terminal Market will open in an hour. Vendors ready their stations. Flat screen TVs illuminate. Coffee percolates. Prep work begins for a day that will see more than 16,000 customers pass through Philadelphia’s most-visited tourist destination.

Eric Bassett, 21, blue-eyed with a youthful face that belies a sharp entrepreneurial mind, is among the merchants making their rounds. He has supply orders to sort, money drawers to fill and staff to oversee. Young though he may be, he is the general manager of his family’s business, Bassetts Ice Cream, the oldest ice cream company in the nation.

Eric Bassett is the last link in a family chain that stretches back six generations to 1861, when his great-great-great-grandfather Lewis Dubois Bassett began making ice cream in his Salem County, New Jersey, backyard.

Legend has it that old L.D. Bassett was the first merchant to sign a lease in the Reading Terminal Market when it opened in 1892. But this part isn’t lore: Bassetts is the only remaining merchant in the market with the same marble counter-top — a symbol of strength for a family business that has weathered the Great Depression, penny-rubbing recessions, the decline of the railroad in a train-bound town, and, well, all of the those ordinary crises and coups a typical American family endures through the generations.

But today, like every weekday, Eric Bassett has to jump on a SEPTA train to make it to Drexel in time for his 9 a.m. class. He’ll be back to work before noon, though — and back in class again later in the day. He works seven days a week while taking a full course load. Sometimes, he does homework in the market, after hours, when all he can hear is the peaceful hum of the overhead lights. He likes life this way.

“I am very proud of my last name,” Bassett says. “I feel the pressure to continue the business. And I know I need to learn more.”

Bassett is one of the Close School of Entrepreneurship’s inaugural students — a group that includes 20 undergraduate entrepreneurship and innovation majors and 11 minors. He came to Drexel as a transfer student this fall from Saint Joseph’s University’s food marketing program after becoming disenchanted with the curriculum. It just wasn’t a good fit.

“My program was all about working for corporations,” Bassett says. “I don’t want to work for the boss. I want to be the boss. When I heard about the Close School, I said, ‘Can I get in on this?’”

Since the Close School’s launch in January 2013, much has been written about its sound-bite-ready message of developing and incubating student startups. But little has been said about its goal of teaching students the skills necessary to innovate within established companies. While the latter is the less provocative message, it might prove to be the most important.

“Eric represents a misconception that we are hyper-focused on just helping students to launch companies,” Founding Dean Donna De Carolis says. “Not all students will launch companies before graduation. Not all students want to launch companies, either. Eric is the perfect example. He’s here to take what he learns and apply it to a family business, his life.”

De Carolis has made it her mission to let the press, parents and most importantly, students, know that entrepreneurship is a mindset, not a business model — and that earning a degree in entrepreneurship and launching a venture aren’t one and the same. In a recent guest column in Forbes, she wrote: “Maybe [entrepreneurship] is starting a company; maybe it is presenting a new idea to your boss; maybe it is choosing to pursue a degree; maybe it is physically moving to another location…the choices are endless and we face them throughout our lives.”

Her message has struck a chord. After the Close School was established in early 2013 with a gift of $12.5 million from the Charles and Barbara Close Foundation, there has been a flux of national press and even a vote of confidence from two-time Drexel alumnus Stanley W. Silverman ’69, ’74 and his wife, Jackie, in the form of a $2 million gift to endow De Carolis as the first Silverman Family Professor of Entrepreneurial Leadership. In April, the Close School became the first freestanding school of entrepreneurship in the nation to offer degrees. The inaugural 2014 class came a full year ahead of schedule. It happened that fast.

“The recognition for the Close School has been so meaningful,” De Carolis says. “It lets us know that there is a market demand for our brand of hands-on entrepreneurship education. But more importantly, it allows us to reach the students. That’s why we’re here.”

While the Close School’s 25-course under- graduate program includes glamorous gems like “Launch It!” and “Ready, Set, Fail” that focus in-depth on venture creation, there are also classes like “Dynamics of the Family Firm” and “Franchising” designed to teach intrapreneurship — the process of acting as an entrepreneur within an existing organization.

It is this duality — a two-fold mission of helping to develop student startups while teaching students the personal skills necessary to innovate anywhere, in organizations large and small — that can sometimes bury what De Carolis calls the Close School’s greatest mission.

“We are preparing students to create their lives and careers in the 21st century,” she says. “Regardless of what those careers are, it is our job to prepare them to not only enter the workforce, but to be pioneers in whatever field they chose to enter.”

As for Eric Bassett, he’s already made his choice. He came to the Close School for the good of the family business, and he finds a certain sense of nobility in his decision.

In addition to serving as general manager for Bassetts Ice Cream, Eric also serves as managing partner of the Market Bakery, another family-owned shop located just across the aisle from Bassetts in the Reading Terminal. He’s also the general manager for The Original Turkey, a company his father, Roger, opened at the age of 21 as an offshoot of the family business to capitalize on the lunch crowd.

Like his son, Roger Bassett earned his stripes inside the Reading Terminal Market. He has served presidents, mayors, tourists and vagrants — all demographics, from all walks of life. He started The Original Turkey from nothing and grew it to 20 franchises before selling them off to focus on the flagship store. He refers to Reading Terminal as “his office” and he is extremely proud of his son. “Transferring to Drexel was the best decision he could have made,” the elder Bassett says. “An entrepreneur is someone who wakes up in the morning thinking about what they are going to do different today, not taking ‘no’ for answer, not being afraid to fail and loving every minute of it. Eric is an entrepreneur.”

Like his father before him, and the generations on his shoulders, the younger Bassett has no intention of leaving the fold.

“I want to take what I learn at Drexel and put it back into to the business,” he says. “I want to learn something new. Something I can actually use. Here, at the Close School, they want you to develop an idea and run with it. I’ve never seen anything like it.” Bassett is full of ideas for the family business. But for now, he’s keeping mum. “I know what I’d like to do,” he says. “I’ll have to pitch it to the family.”