Welbourne: It’s competition season again for budding entrepreneurs

This op-ed was originally posted on AlabamaINNO.

By Theresa M. Welbourne, Ph.D – Alabama Entrepreneurship Institute

It is competition season again in Tuscaloosa and The University of Alabama.

I’m not talking about sports, but in this article, I am focused on business plans and new idea pitch competitions. These events help provide resources to entrepreneurs and are very important in building our local entrepreneurial ecosystems.

The Alabama Entrepreneurship Institute (AEI) hosted the 2023 Tuscaloosa Innovates community business plan competition in February. We invited members of our community, which include non-UA students, to compete for five different cash prizes. We started this competition in 2017 as part of the Edward K. Aldag, Jr. Student Business Plan competition. At that time, we were renting the Bryant Conference Center for all all-day event, but in the afternoon, we had some extra rooms available. So, modeling this idea after competitions I have seen in other cities, we kicked off our first community competition and have engaged the city of Tuscaloosa, the Chamber of Commerce of West Alabama, the local ASBDC group and Regions to help us with the event.

This year the event was held at The EDGE, which is Tuscaloosa’s incubator and accelerator. Teams provided draft PowerPoint presentations of their ideas and we gave them feedback so they could improve their pitches. On Thursday, Feb. 23, the teams each had 10 minutes to share their ideas, and judges had 15 minutes for questions. The names of all winners, contestants and others are available on The EDGE website.

The grand-prize winner was Poppin’ Sisters, a gourmet popcorn business that has gone from selling popcorn at the farmers market to stocking several of the area’s larger grocery store chains. Their variety of flavors rival anything the judges have seen from other vendors (Mama’s Banana Puddin’ is one example). First prize went to Shan Latris, a Tuscaloosa-based fashion designer who creates new looks for women entrepreneurs. Not only is CEO Latris a successful entrepreneur herself, but she is also giving back to the local community by providing other students at UA with valuable internship opportunities. Second place went to CarGloss, a high-end auto detailing company that has been growing and is now ready to do a major expansion. Third place went to Druid City Makerspace, located in downtown Tuscaloosa, the business provides what they call “a gym for hobbies.”

The winners and contestants ranged from people with new ideas to concepts that were well developed, and many with customers despite being in the early stage of their business. The new Community Multiplier Award was given to Curbside Commissary, which is bringing new opportunities for entrepreneurs by providing a low-cost way for local entrepreneurs to start a new business in the food services industry.

On April 13 and 14, 2023 AEI will host the annual Edward K. Aldag, Jr. Student Business Plan Competition. The first day is virtual and those who win their virtual rooms on the 13th move on to an in-person competition at The EDGE on Friday, April 14. Last year about 50 teams competed for a total of $100,000 in prize money. We have many of those students now working on their businesses at The EDGE. Several have competed in other competitions, including Alabama Launchpad as well as in competitions in other universities. Their work has helped get he word out, in a very positive way, about what we are doing in Alabama.

Our third annual competition happens in May and this one is an all employee (faculty and staff) competition at The University of Alabama. From my research to date, UA is innovating in supporting this competition because I have not seen any all-employee university competitions. Many companies engage in these types of competitions, but to date, universities have focused primarily on the faculty. We have had numerous non-faculty winners since his initiative began and given the ability of a university to help provide learning content for entrepreneurs, this is an excellent way to help encourage another group of innovators to start businesses that can help our communities grow.

Building an entrepreneurial ecosystem

These competitions help us build our entrepreneurial community or ecosystem. It’s not just the cash that is important; people attending preparation workshops meet individuals who help and coach them, and they also meet peers who are trying to start businesses. They learn they are not alone and they receive encouragement to keep their ideas moving forward. And in some cases, they receive advice on how to change their ideas.

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