Former UM-Flint theatre/communications major boasts decades of entrepreneurial success

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Joshua Spencer speaking into a microphne on stage.
Joshua Spencer learned core communication, production, design, and collaboration skills at UM-Flint that have helped him launch several successful businesses.

What does it take to be a successful entrepreneur and business owner? Some might study business or finance; others might focus on developing their sales and marketing skills. However, the route was decidedly more creative for Joshua Spencer during his time at the University of Michigan-Flint.

Spencer's journey from a student at Carman-Ainsworth High School to a successful entrepreneur is a powerful testament to the transformative influence of the performing arts. As a Flint native, he began his artistic exploration in high school and continued to refine his skills at the Flint Youth Theatre, known today as the Flint Repertory Theatre. During one of those productions, he crossed paths with Carolyn Gillespie, UM-Flint fine and performing arts professor, who recognized his potential and encouraged him to audition for a performing arts scholarship.

"Receiving that scholarship was a game changer for me," he said. "During my time at UM-Flint, I not only honed my craft as a performer but also broadened my horizons to include more technical and production skills."

After starting several small businesses as a teen, Spencer used the knowledge he gained while studying at UM-Flint as the foundation for his next entrepreneurial venture: a video production company. For much of his time at the university, he balanced his small business with his studies, ultimately going full time with his production company when he had an offer to produce a national advertising campaign.

The Spencer Agency produced television and radio advertising campaigns for brands around the U.S., all from the agency's headquarters in downtown Flint. "I was approached a few times by UM-Flint to place interns, but I wasn't sure at first if I had the time to mentor an intern or even how to do that," Spencer said. "I decided to put them through our standard hiring process, and until COVID-19, we had interns interested in marketing, advertising, production, etc., each semester. I fell in love with that process, and I am incredibly proud that our interns left with a professional portfolio – they worked on national campaigns even before graduating from college."

In 2013, Spencer purchased a cafe in downtown Flint and re-established it as Cafe Rhema, a third-wave specialty coffee roasting company and cafe he created as a welcoming, safe space for UM-Flint's students.

A view of Cafe Rhema, a busy coffee shop.
Cafe Rhema is a staple of downtown Flint.

"It is a passion project for me," Spencer said. "When I spoke with students in the area, they noted that there weren't a lot of options for them to hang out in downtown Flint in a safe, alcohol-free space. So that was my first goal. A lot of the design of the main cafe and the small theatre that we have in the back reflects the set design skills that I learned at UM-Flint. We often talk about how, each day, we're setting the stage in the cafe – from the fresh flowers we put out or the way we write the daily specials – it's all about creating an experience for our community."

Spencer's design skills aren't limited to Cafe Rhema's decor as COVID-19 allowed him to pivot into new businesses. Ever the serial entrepreneur, he set his sights on real estate and throughout the past few years, he has reinvested in Flint by purchasing and redeveloping properties around the area – some for student housing, others for short-term vacation rentals.

  • Photo of interior design

"I also added several properties in Nashville and I've had a lot of fun designing those spaces to reflect particular themes – the local music industry, the South, particular eras," Spencer said. "My set design training and learning how to create a space – an experience – are fully displayed in these rentals. They're dramatic and creative, making trips to Nashville truly memorable."

A fire twirler performing on stag.e
Spencer regularly produces eye-catching performances in Cafe Rhema's boutique theater.

The creative skills that Spencer learned while at UM-Flint show up every day in how he conducts business. "Owning a small business – or several, like I do – is challenging, and it requires creativity from me every single day," he said. "We have bills to pay, and sometimes we have to get creative to push the needle, bring in the community, and get exposure. So, being an entrepreneur is mostly about how creative you can get about problem-solving and what you can do to inspire people to come to your business, spend their money, and spend their time with you."

Throughout the years, Spencer has become integral to Flint's small business, entrepreneurial, and creative communities. He collaborates with the Engaged Community Organization at Freedom Center Church in Fenton to mentor other entrepreneurs and small business owners in the Flint area. For him, the key to success has been building connections.

"My advice to current or future students at UM-Flint is to foster those relationships and engage with other students and your professors," said Spencer. "You never know who might help you discover your path or what you have to offer to the world. I often say I owe my success to my time at UM-Flint studying theatre and communications and I truly mean it! I learned how to communicate effectively, how to collaborate, and how to work hard. Be creative. Experiment and learn from it. Being an entrepreneur is about failing; you will fail a lot, and that's okay. You learn from it, pick yourself up, and start something better. That's the creative process, and studying at UM-Flint helped me develop the resilience that is the foundation of my personal and professional success."

Kat Oak is the communications specialist for the College of Arts, Sciences, and Education. She can be reached via email at [email protected].