Zhang leaves Northwestern to become entrepreneur

Nicole Zhang hits her tee shot at No. 8 during the quarterfinals at the 112th U. S. Women's Amateur Championship. Zhang defeated Sy-Hyun Oh.

When Nicole Zhang was making headlines last summer as a semifinalist at the U.S. Women’s Amateur, she was also dropping hints about a second endeavor. Zhang was in the process of launching her own business, but mum was the word until this fall.

Over the next few months, Zhang, a business student at Northwestern, pulled double duty as a college golfer and entrepreneur. She was second in scoring for the Wildcats (she earned one top-5 finish on the season) as she launched Yoga People, the company through which she sells original yoga mat bags. The product, unveiled in December, is designed after the yoga mat bag her mom created a year ago when Zhang couldn’t find anything similar in stores.

Formerly a business student at Notre Dame (Zhang was an Irish golfer for two of her three semesters at Notre Dame, then took the spring of 2012 off completely to concentrate on her golf game and work with California-based swing coach Bryan Lebedevitch), Zhang said the idea really sprouted after a research support class at Notre Dame during which she learned how to analyze a business’ success from every angle.

“I gained the confidence to launch my own business because of a business class I took at Notre Dame,” she said. After searching unsuccessfully for something that could carry her mat, cell phone and keys to and from a yoga studio, Zhang had her mom sew her own from some leftover fabric and an old computer bag strap. The company took off from there.

Zhang introduced her product to a handful of yoga studios in Calgary, Alberta, where she grew up, and watched it take off. She also launched her own website, yogapeoplebags.com. She has more plans for expanding in the future, but also had to make a sacrifice. Zhang won’t return to the Northwestern women’s golf team in the spring, and instead has re-enrolled at Notre Dame to finish her degree.

Zhang calls playing golf for Northwestern “a great opportunity” but says it’s time now to focus on schoolwork. She began Northwestern a semester behind in her junior year, and fell to a year behind since that school is on a quarter system.

“I probably didn’t spend as much time on the business as I should have,” Zhang said of juggling the responsibilities of a student-athlete in the fall.

Zhang plans to continue playing golf – she plans to set aside time regularly this spring to keep up her game – and one day chase a pro career. She might have the advantage of being her own sponsor.

“I definitely want to turn pro but be an entrepreneur on the side,” she said. “They go hand in hand.”

In addition to golf, Zhang also now has something else to be fanatical about.

“It became a lot more than a workout,” she said of her newfound yoga obsession. “I learned how to focus a lot better.”

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