fostering.jpg By 2003, it was already clear that entrepreneurs would have a major part of the 21st century’s business landscape. The rush to claim entrepreneurial gold was on, and the nation’s top business schools were at the forefront of preparing a new generation of stampeders. That year, School of Business faculty and the dean at that time, Paul Sugrue, launched what would become the annual Business Plan Competition. School of Business students were invited to submit outlines for new products and services, the entries were evaluated and finalists were chosen. Those individuals and teams were then required to write a formal business plan, which would ultimately be judged by a panel of real-world entrepreneurs and venture capitalists, with winners receiving cash prizes. “Those who make it into the finals get a lot of questions and feedback from the judges and come away with a true understanding of what it takes to be an entrepreneur,” says Bill Heffner (BBA ’77), a judge and student mentor since the program’s inception (and a member of the UM President’s Council).

Fifteen years later, the competition has flourished and evolved, keeping up with disruptions in the startup world, as well as a growing entrepreneurial appetite among the University’s entire student body. Along the way, several successful ventures have been created and entrepreneurs nurtured. During this year’s competition, which concluded in late March, nearly $50,000 was awarded, including $10,000 each to two grand prize winners: a pair of juniors building water-cooled computers for video gamers and an alumnus whose website allows high school officials to track student-athletes’ eligibility for college scholarships. The competition’s 2017 sponsors included JES Global Capital Partners GP LLC, Sean Goldstein, the Heffner family, the Gomberg family, the Nunez family and Voalte.

This year’s competition introduced a number of changes, such as opening up the two rounds of judging (choosing the finalists and winners) to the public, with live pitches presented in Storer Auditorium. That venue was also the site of the School’s first entrepreneurship symposium, held during the competition’s final day. “We put together an agenda that featured two lively panel discussions with some great speakers who offered their ideas,  advice and insights to students,” says Marianna Makri, an associate professor of management and the School’s director of entrepreneurship programs (she and Amarylis Wallace, assistant director, run the competition). Symposium speakers included past competition winners, venture capitalists and serial entrepreneurs (read more online at

This year’s changes are hardly the first. In 2005, the competition widened eligibility to include the University’s entire student body. “It would have been a narrow focus to have it only for business school students,” says David Epstein, a member of the University’s Board of Trustees and an ex-officio member of the School’s Entrepreneurship Advisory Board. A local serial entrepreneur, he’s been involved with the competition from the start, including as a judge. “People who want to create and build a business may not be the traditional business school graduate or MBA,” he says. “It was an important realization early on that the competition needed to be more inclusive.” Since that change, a number of winners have come from the Leonard M. Miller School of Medicine, Rosenstiel  School of Marine and Atmospheric Science, Frost School of Music and School of Law. “Entrepreneurship is not just a major, it’s a way of thinking,” says local entrepreneur Robert Rubin (JD ’84), chair of the School’s Entrepreneurship Advisory Board and an original competition judge and mentor (as well as a member of the UM Citizens Board). “Encouraging entrepreneurship across the University is extremely important and is feeding students’ dreams of creating and developing their own business.”

Other changes to the program have coincided with the real world of startups, such as separating small businesses from high-potential ventures during 2006, giving proportionate weight to a new tech venture valued at $1  billion and a $400,000-a-year coffee shop. “Both of them are legitimate startups,” Epstein contends, “but to look at them through the same lens doesn’t make sense.” The official category designations have since been dropped, but the judging criteria remain.

While the School’s alumni have always been integral to the Business Plan Competition, they weren’t invited to compete until 2013. “I was really excited to learn that alumni were included,” said Sandi Vidal (BBA ’88) shortly after she won the grand prize in the new category that year. She and her teammate, Royce Gomez, had been developing the idea for Savory Community Café, an eatery that combined food with social welfare, “but entering the competition forced us to move faster on creating a business plan.”

The competition, which begins during the fall with summary business plans, has increasingly emphasized matching students with mentors who have expertise in specific sectors. Entrepreneurship Advisory Board member Betty Amos (BBA ’73, MBA ’76), for example, is the retired president of Abkey Companies, which operated several Fuddruckers restaurant franchises in southeast Florida. She’s often paired with students proposing food-related businesses, including Vidal and Lucy Calamari (BBA ’13), who captured the alumni grand prize in 2014 for Lucky Lucy Chocolates. “I’ve stayed in touch with Sandi, Lucy and several other mentees,” says Amos, who, in addition to mentoring and judging the competition, is on the board of the University’s Alumni Association, a UM trustee and a UM President’s Council member.

Mentors like Amos can be especially important in guiding non-business students’ financial forecasts. “Many have never taken a business course,” Makri observes, so their plans may lack in that required component, leading judges to downgrade an otherwise outstanding pitch. Makri plans to further strengthen that component by setting up at least two mandatory workshops dedicated to financial matters for next year’s competitors. Amos applauds the idea, noting that “some students have no idea how much capital it takes to start a business.”

constant remains: the undeniable benefit it provides students, who get to practice what’s preached in textbooks and classes. “These students need to cut their teeth on something that’s not a classroom exercise,” says Rick Tonkinson (MBA ’84, MPA ’85), who runs a family-owned financial services firm in Miami, has been a competition judge for several years and is a member of the School’s Entrepreneurship Advisory Board and the UM Citizens Board. “And what better way than the Business Plan Competition?”

Rubin concurs, noting that so many of the School’s entrepreneurship majors “are not just taking classes to get a degree. They have a clear vision of launching the next great business idea. I’m a big advocate of experiential learning, and this competition clearly offers students this opportunity.”

Read about all of the Business Plan Competition winners, plus panelists’ insights from the Entrepreneurship Symposium.

Spring 2017
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