Will Fickling never imagined himself at any other place than the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Both his parents are alumni, and he wanted to follow that family tradition and become a Tar Heel.
He wanted to cheer on the football team at Kenan Stadium, rush Franklin Street after basketball games, and relax on Polk Place on spring afternoons. His dream of attending Carolina also included enrolling in one particular course: UNC Kenan-Flagler Business School’s entrepreneurship and business planning.
The class and its professor, Jim Kitchen, have become well-known for a project that challenges students to create and sell a product to raise money for nonprofits, including the Make-A-Wish Foundation of Eastern North Carolina. Fickling first learned about the class as an eighth grader.
“I showed up on Day 1 [of the class] and said, ‘Hey Professor Kitchen, I don’t know if you remember me, but my name is Will Fickling. You granted my wish six years ago,’” he said. “The last time I was in there, I had a port in my chest, and I was receiving chemo every week.”
Now a sophomore in the UNC Hussman School of Journalism and Media, Fickling was on the other side of the course’s project in 2016 when the Goldsboro native was granted a wish to travel to Hawaii to see the Carolina men’s basketball team play in the Maui Invitational while undergoing chemotherapy to treat a brain tumor.
He knew he wanted to bring a similar experience of hope to other families.
“I really wanted to find a way to give back to Make-A-Wish since they have given me so much,” Fickling said. “It was very much a full-circle moment, and it’s something really special to me. It was an honor to help raise money for the organization and the way it worked out was an incredibly positive experience.”
Ready, Fire, Aim
When preparing for last semester’s course, Kitchen didn’t know Fickling would be one of his students last fall. Fickling’s re-introduction on the first day of the class caught him off guard.
“I stopped whatever I was doing and wrapped my arms around him. It was such an honor to have him in my class,” Kitchen said. “To be a wish child who is then going to embark on this whole other journey on the other side of generating profits for another wish child, it was just a beautiful thing.
“And then the hard work began. Welcome to entrepreneurship, Mr. Fickling.”
Kitchen’s entrepreneurship course focuses on building students’ skills to conceive, plan, execute and scale successful new ventures to prepare the Tar Heels to be North Carolina’s next generation of business leaders. The class puts business theory into practice, most notably in the Ready, Fire, Aim project.
Each student group starts the project with seed money and is charged with developing a product they can sell. Typical products include things like t-shirts, hats, sunglasses or candles. The students then have a short period where they hit the market with their product. Profits last semester went toward the Make-a-Wish Foundation and student entrepreneurship programs at Carolina. Since starting the project more than a decade ago, it has raised more than half a million dollars for local nonprofits and helped fund nearly 100 student ventures, Kitchen said.
The child chosen for last semester’s Ready, Fire, Aim project was Edison — a young boy from Raleigh who was diagnosed with T-Cell Lymphoma at 15 months and has been on an aggressive chemotherapy schedule. Edison’s wish was to go to Disney World.
More than anybody in his class, Fickling knew how impactful that wish becoming a reality could truly be for Edison and his family.
Fickling was 11 when doctors found a brain tumor the size of a golf ball. Two days after his scans in 2015, Fickling underwent emergency surgery to remove most of the tumor. What followed was months of physical therapy five days a week and 20 months of chemotherapy to treat what remained.
His wish to see the Tar Heels play in the Maui Invitational and meet Roy Williams, which came to fruition in the middle of his treatments, provided a glimpse of hope through the long nights of sickness and rough days of treatments.
“One thing that you hear a lot with Make-a-Wish is hope. I can tell you that that is a very true statement,” he said. “Quite honestly, I didn’t have a lot to look forward to at the time. Having something positive to look forward to gave me a very positive mental break to help fuel me to keep on fighting.”
Those memories motivated Fickling to succeed in the Ready, Fire, Aim project.
“There have been few times in my life that have been quite as impactful and meaningful as that with Will,” Kitchen said. “I think Will speaks for most wish kids and families, and it’s that sense of gratitude to pay it forward. But this wasn’t just paying it forward. He’s one of those extraordinary people because his family could have just written a check for another family. This wasn’t about the money. It was the heart and the struggle of doing it.”
As a team at UNC Kenan-Flagler, Fickling and classmates Barrett Harrington and Will Ballenger developed a unique product to take to market for the project: replica “Roy Williams Highway” signs.
“We were trying to find something that was a little bit different,” Fickling said. “We felt like the Roy Williams Highway sign would appeal to pretty much all Carolina fans.”
The team contacted Williams about the idea, and the former Carolina men’s basketball coach agreed to autograph five signs. Within 25 minutes of hitting the market, Fickling and the team had eight orders for the five signs and knew they needed to scale up. They ordered 20 more signs and, through a name, image and likeness deal, had them signed by senior forward Armando Bacot. Another donor donated tickets to the UNC-Duke game in March, and they packaged the tickets with signs for more sales.
In just a few days, the team raised $9,300 — the most of any team in the course of 200 students. In all, the students in two course sections raised more than $170,000 for Make-a-Wish of Eastern North Carolina and student entrepreneurship programs at Carolina.
“I had high hopes and expectations going into this project,” he said. “My entire team was just really motivated to want to succeed in this, given my background. But if you had told me that we were going to raise that much going into it, I can’t say I would have believed you.”
The work, Fickling said, was all made worthwhile when Edison visited the class.
“It was just an all-around amazing moment,” he said. “Our entire class worked really hard and was very motivated to fund Edison’s adventure. When Edison came in, he was smiling from ear to ear and was just so incredibly happy. It was a very rewarding experience.”
Through the project, Fickling — who hopes to have a career that combines his passion for sports and business — gained real-world experience in launching and running a business, from sale pitches and marketing to handling shipping logistics and obtaining permits. The project motivated him to apply for the College of Arts and Sciences’ Shuford Entrepreneurship Program and enroll in more entrepreneurship courses.
It also reaffirmed his passion for using his business skills to give back.
“Philanthropy in business is incredibly important,” he said. “Whatever my business endeavors may be going forward, it will be important to me to always find ways to give back and help others.”