Tuesday, December 10, 2013

[280] MTSU student entrepreneurs win cash for business ideas

Online student contest draws entries from across campus
MURFREESBORO — MTSU sophomore Theresa Daniels admitted she’s “not used to giving a lot of speeches,” so the idea of pitching her business concept in front of university business professors made her “a tinge” nervous.

But the chance of winning cash to support her business brainstorm — to help others like her with Asperger’s syndrome learn valuable life and job skills — was one she couldn’t pass up.

“This was totally new territory for me,” Daniels said after her presentation inside MTSU’s Business and Aerospace Building, “but once I started, it was fairly easy.”

Daniels, a Nashville resident, earned a $500 prize for her third-place finish in MTSU’s first Student Business Idea Competition, held in conjunction with the university’s observance of Global Entrepreneurship Week Nov. 15-22.

The competition offered $2,500 in cash prizes: $1,200 for first place, $800 for second and $500 for third. The Wright Travel Chair in Entrepreneurship in the Jones College of Business and the MTSU-Tennessee Small Business Development Center sponsored what organizers hope will be an annual contest.

Dr. Patrick Geho, state executive director of the Small Business Development Center, said organizers wanted to get students thinking about entrepreneurship. Daniels, a university studies major, was among dozens of MTSU students who dipped their entrepreneurial toes into the real world through the university-sponsored contest.

“The whole idea was to engage all of the colleges,” said Geho, adding that 47 ideas were entered online and seven finalists chosen.

“We had two colleges represented among the winners, and of the whole group, we had every college in the university represented.”

MTSU senior Wes Compton of Chattanooga won the top prize for his business software idea to prevent cyberbullying by alerting parents to potentially harmful keywords and phrases in their children’s online communications. The software would flag the communications before they’re published on social media.

Compton, a business management major, said pitching his concept to the judges made him “a little nervous” and that “lots of good ideas” were being pitched, but he stuck to what he had practiced.

“Actually, I ran out of time and didn’t get to my last slide, but fortunately, it was good enough,” said Compton. He added that some of his $1,200 top-prize winnings will go toward graduate school.

The rules allowed any full-time adult MTSU student to submit one or more original business ideas online for a chance to pitch a concept in person. MTSU professors then vetted the ideas to determine the ones with the greatest potential. The only exception: No proposals could be a franchise or an existing business.

The contest entrants had to state why their concepts were great business ideas. They also were asked to name and briefly describe the business, propose a location, and describe potential customers and how to reach them.

Second-place winner Ryan Egly of Lawrenceburg, Tenn., described his $800 idea as geared toward small businesses — “kind of a small-business social media management firm.”

The senior organizational leadership major, who plans to graduate next May, said he learned about the contest from one of his professors.

“It’s a great idea. This competition is definitely needed,” Egly said. “Even if I hadn’t won second place, I have gained so much from the experience of being able to articulate an idea into a presentation.”

Daniels’ business idea, “Theresa’s Twists: Pretzels with a Purpose,” took third place for its café/coffee house concept that would provide job opportunities and social outlets to those with Asperger’s, a form of autism. Daniels created a brochure for her presentation that included her business’ mission, logo and website.

“The pretzels will be unique, like the people with the disability,” said Daniels, whose parents came to campus to support her effort, which has been in the works for the past year.

The finalists impressed the four-judge panel of MTSU professors, Geho said.

“The competition was very fierce. They were not only on a clock, but they had to be on their best game,” he said.

Geho said he hopes to gather financial support for the competition from area businesses. They can benefit, he said, because a contest like this teaches students “not only to go into business for themselves but to also be a more valued employee, because they are aware of the process of business development.”

Top winners could eventually become a client of the Tennessee Small Business Development Center, which offers expert counseling, training resources and professional referrals to small business owners and prospective owners at offices throughout the state. The TSBDC has offices across the state, with the local office located inside the Rutherford County Chamber of Commerce on Medical Center Parkway.

Next year, Geho said, his office will offer training earlier in the semester for students who want to enter the competition but are unfamiliar with preparing business pitches.

For more information about small business resources and training, visit the Tennessee Small Business Development Center’s website at www.tsbdc.org or call 615-898-2745.

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