The Entrepreneurial Accelerator Program (EAP) partnered with area universities last month to inspire students to create and run their own businesses with a series of university business model competitions across north Louisiana.
Sean Green, publisher and editor of BIZ. Magazine, spoke with EAP Executive Director Dave Smith about the steps they are taking to build an entrepreneurial ecosystem, such as the university business model competitions.
Sean Green: EAP is obviously all based around cultivating an entrepreneurial ecosystem in north Louisiana. Can you talk about the need to establish a mechanism for educating college students about entrepreneurship?
Dave Smith: We want to support entrepreneurship and innovation being part of the curricula offered at all of our Louisiana colleges and universities. With 97% of Louisiana businesses classified as small businesses; this is the strongest area of opportunity for our students —and the region’s and state’s best opportunity to grow. If we want our graduates to stay in Louisiana and create businesses here, we must teach them that they can do it, show them what it takes to be a successful business owner, and prove to them that, collectively, we can help provide the help — a robust entrepreneurial ecosystem— to support them along the way.
SG: That type of element seems necessary as many college students want to start their own business. What do you think the pitch competition offers in terms of education and guidance for these up and coming entrepreneurs participating in the event?
DS: This is the first time students get exposure to the Lean Startup approach, which is a way of thinking that is being adopted globally and changing how companies are creative and how products are launched. Students are receiving invaluable guidance and advice from mentors and other experienced business people who have been there and can help them identify and navigate the hurdles associated with launching, owning and running a business.
Through the pitch competitions, the students are getting exposure to a whole network of professionals within the entrepreneurial ecosystem who support small business, including potential investors. They are able to gain new skills, practice and hone their sales pitches and presentations, and create solutions for potential issues that could derail their businesses before they even get launched. They also get visibility with entrepreneurial movers and shakers who can help them launch their businesses and get jumpstarted with commercialization of their products.
SG: What has the feedback been for you from former competitors and your participating universities?
DS: The feedback we’ve received has been very positive. All of the schools we’ve worked with are excited to be a part of this effort and what it means for their students to have the opportunity to engage in business model pitch competitions. For example, one competition winner sold his business when an e-commerce company became interested and bought him out. He knew a lot more about his business idea as a result of competing in the business model pitch and was prepared for the opportunity to sell his business when that surfaced.
SG: You’re growing the contest year over year with plans to add more next year. What is the endgame, or goal for the pitch competitions?
DS: EAP is currently developing a Grand Prix event that we anticipate will be introduced in the next one to two years. The Grand Prix event will be the ultimate showdown, with the winners from each of the university pitch competitions in the current year competing for a larger monetary prize and the best student-generated innovative idea in the state.
This will mean bringing even more support, more encouragement and motivation, and more resources for our students around the state. And with the growing interest, visibility and volume of experienced professionals and investors engaged in this process and the region’s entrepreneurial ecosystem, our state’s chances to keep our graduates here and have a more stable and robust economy in the years to come will grow commensurately.
SG: What about the existing businesses who see a need to participate — how can they either support the efforts of these pitch contests? Or on a bigger level, how can they/should they contribute to the entrepreneurial ecosystem?
DS: A recent study from the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation says that three of every 1,000 individuals in the U.S. will launch a start-up — and that the remaining 997 should do what they can to support them. So, that support can be using the new technologies, buying the products, and contracting the services that are introduced via the start ups.
Businesses and individuals can also help sponsor and participate as mentors and speakers at events like the business model pitches and the upcoming state competition that EAP is creating. They can visit with classes to share their experience and ask universities what help they need with their entrepreneurship programs. If they can help just one student negotiate the hurdles by sharing their own experiences and learnings, they’ve just bolstered the entrepreneurial ecosystem.