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Former Business Student Puts Master's Thesis to the Test

Luke Stephens left Texas in 2010 to pursue a master's degree in economics at Old Dominion University.

He soon got wrapped up in his thesis, which had to do with economic modeling around the creation of a neighborhood grocery store.

The idea was a good one. So good that the more Stephens ran the modeling numbers, the more he became convinced his small grocery store idea would fly. So the thesis is on hold, for now. And Stephens is getting a real-world look at entrepreneurship before he returns to the classroom.

In early April, Stephens opened Shady Grove Marketplace on Botetourt Street in Norfolk's historic Freemason District.

"My thesis research used economic modeling to determine if this location is right for a small grocery store," Stephens said. On the downside, he noted, "There's no parking here. It's a property that was empty, where several businesses had failed before."

But through his studies of econometric modeling in ODU's College of Business and Public Administration, Stephens came to the realization that the neighborhood could support a venture such as his. For one thing, there wasn't a comparable store in the densely populated Freemason District.

"Based off stuff I was learning in the classroom, it appeared like there was a good opportunity for the store to succeed," he said. "This area is just perfectly positioned for a corner store. It's only .15 square miles, and there are 2,000 residents of Freemason."

Stephens also took to heart the advice of Gilbert Yochum, one of his professors, and now dean of the college.

"He's been great. He's constantly telling us as students about the value of going out and trying your idea in the marketplace. He tells his students you really can start anything. That's the only way for sure you'll know it's going to work."

The rigor of starting a business meant Stephens had to go through permit applications, present his idea to local civic groups and raise start-up capital. Then he faced the daunting, make-or-break challenge of attracting customers to his new business. But after only a few months, he has developed a loyal clientele of neighborhood residents.

The 1,250-square-foot store has four employees, along with Stephens and his wife Emily. Stephens said he's pleased with the connection he's made with the quirky Freemason neighborhood, adding it reminds him of the urban landscape in Austin, where he did his undergraduate degree.

He also connected quickly with other successful local entrepreneurs. In addition to its regular stock of grocery items, Shady Grove offers wraps from Azar's Café & Market and desserts from Carolina Cupcakery - both popular establishments in Ghent - as well as local beer and wine.

While many area residents grow up and want to leave Hampton Roads, Stephens, who hails from Dallas, sees tremendous opportunity here. "I came here, and I've stayed here, because I see so much opportunity in this region," he said. "Just in this area, the city has invested so much - in new buildings, new light rail. It's not going to stop here. Things are only going to get better."

Stephens said he sees many similarities between Norfolk and Austin, a city very close to his heart.

"I was always committed to living in and starting my career in Austin. Norfolk gave me reason to reconsider; it just seems like a very grounded community and the progressive nature likens itself very much to my previous home."

Stephens said he is grateful for the education he has received at Old Dominion, and looks forward to eventually finishing his degree at the university. "They offered help in so many different ways. They helped me fund the whole thing with teaching assistant jobs. And the flexibility of the program, working with Dr. Yochum and then Larry Filer [associate professor of economics], helped me balance school with preparing to start this business."

This article was posted on: June 22, 2011

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