MTSU junior Theresa Daniels continues to put her unique "twist" on her business idea to raise awareness about and address the challenges and opportunities for those with Asperger's syndrome.
The Nashville, Tennessee, entrepreneur, who was diagnosed with the form of autism as a child, recently took the top prize in the social enterprise category of the Launch Tennessee University Venture Challenge. She now has $12,500 to invest into her startup idea, Theresa's Twists--Pretzels with a Purpose, where she will put into practice the skills she's learned through the Jones College of Business.
Daniels won the LaunchTN cash after pitching her business plan to representatives from the public-private partnership, which focuses on supporting local entrepreneurs through mentoring, networking and capital. The organization's inaugural university venture challenge brought student entrepreneurs from across the state into the mix.
Daniels' vision for Theresa's Twists initially involves the launch of a food-truck business that "sells delicious gourmet soft pretzels and a line of candied pretzels." The three- to five-year goal is to also sell pretzels at a brick-and-mortar operation and then eventually connect with educational institutions, organizations, businesses and individuals to develop a model to empower young adults like her who have Asperger's.
A primary goal is to give job opportunities to young adults struggling with Asperger's, which affects the ability to socialize and communicate. Employment at Theresa's Twists will help them with job training, family support and social skills for future employment.
Daniels hopes to build on her momentum by launching a Theresa's Twists' online Kickstarter campaign Thursday, June 23, with a goal to raise $20,000.
"We have been planning and preparing for five years and building investments so we can start our food truck business," said Daniels, spokesperson for the business. "We feel it is important to be debt-free in order to sustain the business so we can eventually help more and more people like me. I want to give them hope!"
Theresa's Twists arose from Daniels' own "deep, dark, and sometimes overwhelming challenge of Asperger's syndrome." Her parents were told when she was a small child that Daniels would likely never speak or have a normal life. She's made great strides since.
"But I have become what my parents call a hurdle jumper. I look at obstacles as stepping stones not stumbling blocks," she said.
While attending the University of Cincinnati several years ago, Daniels experienced a time of severe depression. But one day while she was eating a soft pretzel, the idea for "Theresa's Twists--Pretzels With a Purpose" came to her and was embraced by her parents, Jody and John Daniels.
Daniels was encouraged to enter LaunchTN by Bill McDowell, chair holder of the Wright Travel Chair in Entrepreneurship at MTSU, who was familiar with Daniels' startup idea after she won the Community Choice Award and third place overall in last year's Business Plan Competition by the Jones College of Business. Daniels is an integrated studies major with an emphasis in business.
"Dr. McDowell has been a blessing toward Theresa and our family. He strongly encouraged her to apply," said Jody Daniels, Theresa's mother. The LaunchTN funds will help the family purchase and equip the food truck while they continue pursuing funds from grants and sources such as Kickstarter.
"Theresa has a great idea with Theresa's Twists, and over time has been able to craft her idea into a very realistic opportunity," McDowell said.
"I felt that she would have an excellent chance with the LaunchTN competition because her story, her enthusiasm and her dedication to this idea and cause are so apparent. I am excited about the next chapter of her business start-up journey!"
The Danielses also praised Lance Alexis, director of the Disability and Access Center at MTSU, and Kevin States, associate director of the center who was assigned to work directly with Theresa to support her academic efforts while on campus.
"I've been more supported at MTSU than at any other university I've attended," said Theresa, who has previously attended Clark State Community College, Wright State University and the University of Cincinnati in Ohio, and Volunteer State Community College in Gallatin, Tennessee.
The ultimate dream is to also establish Life Point University, a program to educate, equip and empower, and experience life skills in a comfortable setting for young adults struggling with Asperger's. Each week, students' schedules would include one-on-one and group tutoring, supervised study as well as coaching in planning, organizing, managing time, strategizing and executing.
Jody Daniels said the family finds excitement in their effort "to just help the world have a better understanding of people who have Asperger's syndrome and (know) that people with autism are great people and certainly employable people, they just have to be given a chance and some training."
Learn more at www.theresastwists.com