Caroline Rooney produced her first T-shirt design, with a "Peace and Love" theme, in her high school textile class. She wore the shirt throughout high school and then at the University of Michigan. Her friends wanted to know where she got the shirt, and when she told them, they asked her to make copies of it. "One of my friends basically gave me an ultimatum that said, 'We can't be friends anymore unless you have more of those shirts made,' " Rooney says. She promised the friend a shirt for his birthday and quickly realized it was more cost-effective to make 25 shirts than to make just one. The first run cost her $300 to produce and sold out immediately. "I thought to myself, Let's just see how this goes," she says.
So, last year, Rooney launched The Bearon, a T-shirt line sold primarily through her own website and independent sales reps on six other college campuses, including the University of Wisconsin at Madison, Syracuse University, and Northwestern.
The origin of the company's name is a bit embarrassing for Rooney. When she was a child, her family called her Care Bear. Then, after a series of summer internships unearthed her innate talent for business, her brother started to call her "the baron," as in "robber baron." The Bearon is a combination of the two nicknames and reflects something else -- Rooney wants to be a success in business, but she wants to do more than make money. The 19-year-old is donating 20 percent of the profit from every shirt sold to three charities: UNICEF, the Alzheimer's Foundation, and New York City's Public Art Fund.
For marketing, Rooney maintains a page on Facebook, holds events with campus Greek organizations, and often speaks at assemblies and club meetings. She also maintains a blog on her website, thebearon.com, on which she promotes her favorite artists and photographers, and posts photographs of customers wearing her shirts in cities around the world. "It's getting to the point where I don't recognize some of the people who are sending in orders, calling in questions, or walking around campus wearing the shirts," Rooney says. "That's when you know the word of mouth has gone to the next level, and that's really exciting."
As a sophomore, Rooney still has a full course load, which makes it hard for her to focus on the business. Her plan is to add sales reps at a few more colleges and see where it goes from there. "I can tell you all the awesome things I'd like to do with the company and all the great places I think we can grow," she says. "But at the same time, I have a 10-page paper due tomorrow. There are definitely times when ambition and academics collide."