Lilly Meshesha

Lilly Meshesha

Lilly Meshesha has been passionate about healthcare for almost as long as she can remember. With the current pandemic occurring and her inability to find masks in any stores, she figured she’d make her own. “I realized, I have this skill,” she said. “Why not make a better mask?”

Now, thanks to a pair of classes at Columbia College – unrelated to the degree in healthcare management she’s currently seeking – Meshesha is potentially going down a different path, one whose landmark is a new business, Lilly Hop Shop.

The start of that path might be considered typical among the college’s non-traditional students: Meshesha took classes at several different institutions over the years before hearing from a work colleague about Columbia College. Though she quickly realized that online classes weren’t her cup of tea, she also learned that the college had an in-seat location not far from her Olathe, Kansas, home.

The college’s faculty and staff welcomed her and helped her begin work toward a degree in healthcare management. Her first course, a speech class with instructor Dee Mathison, made all the difference.

“[Mathison] changed my mind about school,” Lilly says. “Her approach to the class made me think that this is a good school for me, a good fit for me. She definitely has something to do with this.”

Part of that has to do with the realization that Lilly thrives in an environment with instant feedback, says Mark Clark, assistant director of the college’s location in Kansas City and also Meshesha’s advisor. “She enjoys learning from and interacting with her student peers. It gives her comfort to know she can ask questions and get answers in real time.”

That interactive nature of an in-seat class proved quite fruitful earlier this month. While her students were connecting virtually from home over Zoom, Mathison threw out a conversation-starter to her business communication students. Meshesha said she was experimenting with different mask designs, and when the students asked how many she’d made, Mathison said the six words that have suddenly changed everything: “You can make this a business,” Lilly recalled.

Selection on masks on a table

Lilly’s shop offers many different mask patterns.

Within three days, she had opened up Lilly Hop Shop on Etsy, a popular online marketplace; folks can now order masks in adult or child sizes in several different colors and patterns. “I’ve always wanted to make something of my own, but I’ve never had someone say, ‘Hey, this is worth money!’ Dee’s the one that gave me that push.”

Meshesha is quick to point out that profit is far down the list of her business’ priorities. “I want to help people. We’re all having difficult times right now.” She also has enjoyed the real-world lessons from Mathison’s business communication class. “We’ve talked about, ‘If I were a CEO, how would I approach this? How do I interact with my customers?’ I’ve taken it seriously,” she says.

“I’m not just here selling homemade things, this is me applying my education toward what I’m doing. I want it to make sure it looks like a real company.”

Meshesha also looked at her design through a public-health lens, knowing that people who aren’t used to wearing mask might not wear them correctly. Comfort and style might have to serve as feet in the door to aid in encouraging more mask-wearers. “I wanted to make sure that the design is not just a mask that’s stylish, but also fun so that people are willing to wear it. It’s not just for their safety, but their family and the people they’re around.”

In the meantime, she’s become aware of the college’s Fishman Center for Entrepreneurship, will continue to work on her business, and decide where her path will lead.

Because she’s had an on-again, off-again relationship with her education, Lilly’s not even sure how close she is to her degree, and she’s not sure she wants to know. She’s just enjoyed the process of learning, and gives the staff at Columbia College-Kansas City all the credit.

Clark is quick to deflect it back. “She is much more capable than she gives herself credit for, and that is why I was so excited to see her using what she has learned at Columbia College to start her Etsy page,” he said.