Shorewood Student Takes Terrarium Startup To College

Oct 24, 2017

I first met Cole Compton four years ago, when he was a high school freshman. He had just started interning with a program called Teens Grow Greens, and was sharing his vision to sell terrariums with plants with fellow students.

Cole Compton (second from left) with fellow Teens Grow Greens interns in 2014.
Credit Susan Bence / Milwaukee Public Radio

“I loved the idea of having this living thing that I can almost make a home for. I can make this little environment of my own,” Compton says.

He was the youngest in the program, and the first to come up with a business plan. Compton says the program helped him succeed in high school -- something he feared he wouldn't do.

He has dyslexia, and remembers how he felt walking in the door on the first day he attended his charter school in Shorewood.

“First day walking in, I thought it would probably be my last day. I thought I would walk out that door and never go back,” Compton says.

Gradually he felt at home at school and the Teens Grow Greens program helped Compton turn his terrarium model into a business.  "(It was) truly a dream team of people to keep me there and to help me to not only succeed, but to thrive that harsh environment for a dyslexic," Compton says.

As a high school freshman Compton presented at MATC's 2014 sustainability summit.
Credit Susan Bence / Milwaukee Public Radio

He began selling them at stores and farmers' markets. In the early days, he placed plants in diminutive glass spheres. “They started as some moss in a bowl with a plant in the center."

Then, he branched out. What started with air plants transitioned “to actual succulents or cactuses and all of the materials are locally sourced, which I’m really proud of, including the plants which are actually bought about a mile away from my house."

Compton’s newest design is a large glass pitcher terrarium. It's overflowing with plants that look like they'd love to spill right out of the spout.

In 2015 Compton began to sell his terrariums at Outpost Natural Foods (pictured here with Zack Hepner).
Credit Susan Bence / Milwaukee Public Radio

Compton says his terrariums are practically care free. “The newest thing we’ve added, we have these little pea pebbles…..and what’s going to happen is the water is going to flow down to the bottom and then over the month’s time it’s going to evaporate to the top. I call it a self-watering system,” he says.

I talked with the now 18 year old again last August at Westown Farmers’ Market in downtown Milwaukee.

The day and place were significant. Westown was the first farmers’ market at which he introduced his product and this would be his final market day before heading to college in Colorado.

“I’m going to be attending this very cool business school for a degree in social entreneurship. There’s actually 36 kids in the university. From all parts of the world so it should be a really good eye opener to experience some different culture.” Compton adds, “Not only that, the whole school is focusing on changing the world in the best way possible, with a product that is maybe ecofriendly, that helps a lot of different people.”

Another of Compton's passions is universal access to clean, healthy food. In the summer of 2016, he became the youngest intern at the Hunger Task Force farm.
Credit Susan Bence / Milwaukee Public Radio

Compton would be taking his evolving business idea and his enthusiasm with him to the small mentor-driven university in Boulder, Colorado. He’s planning to continue designing and selling terrariums.

As we talked, a woman spending her lunch break at the farmers' market wandered over to chat to Compton.

Jode Sterny reported that the terrarium she bought from him early in the season is flourishing. Normally, she says, “I kill stuff, but this is absolutely fantastic on the desk. It calms me down, it give me something to look at. I bother my workmates with it. Look look, I thought there was a worm in it. It really freaked me out. It turned out being a plant coming up. It was awesome,” she says.

Compton’s terrarium sales are helping pay his tuition. His business plan calls for donating a portion of his profits. Compton’s been following that policy since his freshman year of high school.

Cole Compton with satisfied customer, Jode Sterny.
Credit Susan Bence / Milwaukee Public Radio

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