As in the television show Shark Tank, in which entrepreneurs pitch their ideas and products to potential investors, George Mason University student entrepreneurs compete for funding for their potential businesses at the annual Dean’s Business Plan Competition.
Since 2007, students have been presenting their business plans to a panel of successful entrepreneurs in the Mason School of Management-sponsored event. But this past year’s prize—$10,000 in cash and $10,000 worth of in-kind services—was a first for the competition. This event also marked the first year the competition was open to all Mason students, not just School of Management students.
As a result, the competition has grown. Last fall, 39 student teams were whittled down to 11 finalists who had eight minutes to convince the judges that their plan was a winner. This year’s competition, set for November, promises to be even bigger.
At the start of the fall semester, the competition’s creator, Mahesh Joshi, Mason associate professor of global strategy and entrepreneurship, began looking for student entrepreneurs by “sending out feelers” to the other schools and colleges. He says with Mason’s university-wide minor in entrepreneurship, a master’s degree concentration in social entrepreneurship, and so many programs with capstone courses, he really wanted more students to have the opportunity to share their ideas and compete. His networking paid off. In addition to business students, nursing, psychology, and engineering students were among those presenting at the 2012 competition.
“I was impressed with some of the work being done to assist student entrepreneurs across campus,” says Joshi, who also directs the School of Management’s Innovation and Entrepreneurship Program. He is looking forward to seeing the ideas this year’s competition will attract.
What does it take to walk away with the big money? According to Joshi, it is pretty simple: you have to solve a problem. And you can solve that problem in one of two ways—by being innovative and doing something no one has seen before or by working on a common problem in a new and enterprising way.
“Both have value,” says Joshi. “Your idea doesn’t have to be glamorous if your execution is impeccable.”
The Winning Idea
What brought together the founders of Hooliga, the winners of the Business Plan Competition, was an interest in football. Sean Barnes, MBA ’13, hails from New Jersey and his business partner, Brian Dreyer, MBA ’13, came to Northern Virginia from Connecticut. After meeting in the Mason part-time MBA program, the two soon realized they had something in common: they were both New York Giants fans and had yet to find a spot in the Washington, D.C., area where Giants fans gathered. So, an idea was born.
Their winning idea is Hooliga, a web-based hub enabling online and offline connections between like-minded sports fans. You can search the site by sport team or fan group, or you can start one of your own. The site covers all the major sports and a number of elite NCAA Division I teams. Hooliga.com also provides information about bars and restaurants, such as happy hour times, so the user can make some decisions before heading out.
“We are not trying to be a social network,” says Dreyer. “We want people to be able to connect around their teams and find other fans who share their passion.”
Both agree that aside from attending a game, it is far more enjoyable to watch it with others. They have even tried out a few of the sports bars on their list. They believe their service isn’t just good for sports fans but helps the small business owners running these establishments.
“It is definitely a two-way street—it is also good for the business owners who welcome these groups,” says Barnes.
Barnes and Dreyer graduated in May and are working full-time jobs while building their company. They plan to expand the website to include other major cities and develop a mobile app. Although they have not yet used the in-kind services provided by the Mason Enterprise Center, the duo plans to do so when they are ready to hire employees.
And yes, they did find a place to cheer on the Giants in Washington, D.C.
The Other Aspiring Entrepreneurs
Other student teams in the competition were equally impressive.
If Mason management student Hadil Alyamani had any difficulties at all with her competition presentation, it was keeping it to eight minutes. “I love talking in front of a crowd,” she says.
As she is a very popular Zumba instructor, that is no surprise. Her special exercise classes, catering to women, have been featured on National Public Radio and the Washington Post—and were the inspiration behind her business plan. Alyamani, along with her friend Jessica Garretson, proposed an all-women’s beauty and fitness studio in Falls Church.
While opening a studio is not a new idea, catering to this population is. And Alyamani knows her audience. Alyamani wears a scarf or hijab to cover her hair and neck like many women and girls in her Zumba classes do. “When we are covered, we can’t work out,” she says. In an all-women setting, they can take the hijabs off, so she wants to open a studio and salon where these women can relax, exercise, and enjoy spa services.
As for developing her business plan, that was relatively easy for Alyamani. In fact, she was very well prepared because she was enrolled in Mason professor David J. Miller’s Entrepreneurship class at the time. “I was living and breathing entrepreneurship that semester,” she says. “It was the best class I’ve ever taken.”
In addition to teaching Zumba and trying to grow her business, Alyamani works full time managing a retail store while taking a full load of classes. The only thing between her and a bachelor’s degree was a School of Management capstone course in Beijing, China, which she completed this summer.
Alyamani says she deposited the $5,000 prize money and, until she is ready to open a salon, will continue to offer her services with Garretson (who is not a Mason student) at private parties, in which they travel to the hostess’ home and offer Zumba or belly dancing classes, as well as hair styling and makeup. Much of their business is by word of mouth and the demand for such services keeps Alyamani busy.
“One thing I learned from my classes is that I don’t want to get in over my head,” she says, but she will definitely be ready when the right opportunity presents itself.
Management students Rachel Carr and Dayton Carroll took third place and a $4,000 cash prize for their proposal, Gotta Have It Buoy, a self-deploying buoy used to retrieve objects that have fallen into water.
A $1,000 audience’s choice award was presented to the Ban-Yam Juice team—accounting student James B. Di Rubbio and management student Donald Shohei Takagi—who proposed an original yam-based juice.
The team Electro Movement demonstrated an innovative collaboration between business and engineering. Accounting student Michael Ly, computer engineering student Yi Qu, electrical engineering student Michelle Samra, and bioengineering student Amanda Zuzolo proposed an electronically controlled “electro-arm” to mount different appliances and control the devices with the use of a touchscreen. The project stemmed from the students’ desire to help a Mason professor with cerebral palsy, and others with limited mobility, use devices such as laptops and cameras.
Assembling the Panel of Judges
Joshi says finding judges for the competition is not a problem. “Our alumni are always excited about giving back,” he says.
The 2012 panel included Mason’s entrepreneurs-in-residence John Casey and Ron Kaiser, cofounders and owners of the private management consulting company RELM2 LLC, and Mason alumni Lyndsey Clutteur DePalma, BS Biology ’03, MBA ’11; Jeff Fissel, BS Information Technology ’06; and Dale “Dusty” Wince, EMBA ’12, who recently donated $100,000 to the new Student Venture Fund (see sidebar).
The judges also offered advice to teams after the presentations, and students were able to network with visiting entrepreneurs. Joshi makes himself available to the students throughout the process to guide them and help them pull together the best presentation they can.
“The idea of entrepreneurship is not monopolized by the business discipline. Innovation and entrepreneurship can come from anywhere,” says Joshi. “This year, I am expecting even greater collaborations.”
Catherine Ferraro, Rosa Vivanco, and Frances Womble contributed to this story.
Sidebar: Aiding Student Entrepreneurs
The School of Management has been able increase the amount of the awards for the annual Business Plan Competition thanks to the Student Venture Fund, which was created by Mason alumni Lovey Hammel, BS Marketing ’88, and Charles McGrath, BS Finance and Decision Science ’86.
With the support of additional donations from Lynn “Lee” Corey; Marilyn Jackson, BS Management ’11; and Dale “Dusty” Wince, EMBA ’12, the School of Management was able to launch the fund with $250,000. Plans are to eventually grow the fund to $1 million.
The fund provides money, training, and mentorship for a team of students to explore ideas for business products and services in partnership with Mason faculty, business leaders, investors, and successful entrepreneurs. Mason student involvement is required of ventures seeking capital from the fund, and there must be at least one Mason student (or recent graduate) owning founders’ equity. The student can come from any discipline at Mason.
The $10,000 prize for the winning team will be matched by another $10,000 in in-kind services provided by the Mason Enterprise Center, a university-based economic development enterprise that offers a broad array of services including business counseling and a small business incubator program.
“We are excited to offer support of this venture fund to our students and help expand opportunities for them to acquire entrepreneurial skills, knowledge, and perspective,” says Joshi. “The fund will also allow students to connect with successful entrepreneurs and investors in the community, thereby increasing the number of new companies and products brought to market by Mason students.”