When Andrew and Cara Sawyer decided to build a vineyard and winery in 2008, they had their work cut out for them.
Located in Preston, Connecticut, on an overgrown, 62-acre parcel of land that had once been home to a dairy farm, the property would eventually be transformed into the scenic Preston Ridge Vineyard. But not without its share of early challenges.
Over the winter break, 16 Connecticut College students returned to campus early to participate in a five-day career preparation program that examined the challenges the vineyard overcame during its developmental stages, and to work directly with the Sawyers on crafting innovative ideas for growing their business even further.
The program, known as “Fast Forward: Everything is a Business,” is in its fifth year and continues to be popular among students from a broad spectrum of majors who engage in mock interviews, collaborate in groups to work on real case studies from local businesses and hone their public speaking and presentation skills.
At the core of this year’s case study was the Preston Ridge Vineyard, which, aside from having a tasting room, also hosts weddings, live music, outdoor yoga classes—and cows.
Noel Garrett, who serves as dean of academic support and director of the Academic Resource Center, created the program as a way for liberal arts students to learn business-based skills that could be applied in a number of careers that haven’t traditionally emphasized that type of background.
“No matter what our students do when they leave Conn—non-profit, medical, investment banking, you name it—it is a business,” Garrett said. “We infused much more of that philosophy into the program this year, and I think that’s part of why we drew students who are art majors and biology majors as well as students who study economics and finance. Whatever line of work they chose to go into, it's all business.”
Students are assigned roles as consultants in a variety of areas and present solutions to real problems the participating business has faced. This involves students traveling to the business site where they can interview employees and immerse themselves in the company. That face-to-face communication is something Garrett says is crucial to designing a tangible experience as opposed to a theoretical one in a textbook. The students agree.
“Originally, I applied for the Fast Forward program because I was interested in assessing a real business case study through different lenses such as management and marketing,” said Jitu Dribssa ’22, a first-year international student from Ethiopia. “But the program really exceeded my expectations and was an opportunity I will always be grateful for.”
This year marked the third time Preston Ridge Vineyard has participated in Fast Forward, bringing new challenges and experiences to the table each time for students to grapple with.
"We feel so fortunate to have been included again,” said Cara Sawyer, one of the vineyard’s owners. “All of the students involved impressed us with their professionalism, thoroughness and creativity as they examined the different aspects of our business."