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Jordan Vanderham, pictured third from the right, credits student business plan competitions with providing real-world lessons in entrepreneurism. He and partner Jared Seifert won $65,000 in funding at 18 pitch competitions for Orindi Ventures LLC, which is presently beta testing a mask for people who work in severe cold. Jordan Vanderham, pictured third from the right, credits student business plan competitions with providing real-world lessons in entrepreneurism. He and partner Jared Seifert won $65,000 in funding at 18 pitch competitions for Orindi Ventures LLC, which is presently beta testing a mask for people who work in severe cold. Courtesy Photo

Pitch competitions prepare budding entrepreneurs for real world businesses

BY Sunday, May 28, 2017 04:20pm

His first business presented workshops on renewable energy at elementary schools and included solar power kits students could assemble.

Jordan Vanderham later moved on to a “weird and crazy” idea for nose plugs for cold-weather athletes, which he later refined into a mask that warms and humidifies the air for people working in the severe cold. A Grand Valley State University engineering student, Vanderham developed the mask with partner Jared Seifert, a student Kendall College of Art and Design.

Their company, Orindi Ventures LLC, is now beta-testing the mask with a cold-storage company in Holland after raising $65,000 by participating in 18 pitch competitions over two years.

Vanderham credits the myriad college pitch competitions with doing more than bringing in money to support the product’s development. Namely, the events gave Vanderham and Seifert confidence, sound advice and invaluable insight they needed to push ahead.

“It’s made me more confident to put my time and talent and energy into it,” said Vaderham, a 22-year-old Holland resident. “It’s just a big lesson learned.”

Vanderham is among a growing number of college students today who are learning lessons at entrepreneurial programs and then testing their mettle and ideas at student competitions, whether locally, across Michigan or nationwide.

Organizations such as MWest Challenge, a six-month regional program on entrepreneurism that culminates in a pitch competition, have become commonplace in the last decade for college students seeking a degree in or studying entrepreneurism as part of their major. The competitions, which typically take place at the end of the academic program, provide students a platform to apply what they’ve learned in their studies and pitch their ideas to seasoned innovators, entrepreneurs and prospective investors.

Kevin McCurren, a faculty member at GVSU’s Seidman College of Business, refers to MWest Challenge as a hands-on way for students to learn entrepreneurism. In a way, he said the competition is “almost like a final exam.” 

“Since you’re teaching by doing, the natural thing is to have a competition,” he said. “It’s part of the educational process, too.”

Organized by nine colleges and universities in West Michigan a few years ago, MWest Challenge combined pitch competitions held at each member college. This year’s program and competition drew more than 70 teams consisting of 180 students.

The event attracts college students from varying fields — business, accounting, engineering, health care, and arts and humanities, said Shorouq Almallah, director of GVSU’s Richard M. and Helen DeVos Center for Entrepreneurship & Innovation.

Students studying physical therapy who want to run their own clinic, or arts majors who want to open their own art gallery, for instance, can benefit from participating in programs such as MWest Challenge, Almallah said.

“It’s not only for business students,” she said. “The skills can be really beneficial for the non-business student. Those students probably need those skills more than the business students.”

Vanderham credits MWest Challenge with preparing him to present his idea to prospective investors and explain the market problem he and his partner want to solve. It also helped him understand how to adjust to feedback and network with professionals that can help the company.

Those are firsthand lessons that can only come in the “real world,” he said.

“They force you to do the work that you’re supposed to do,” he said. “You can make the mistakes there, versus when it really matters.”

MWest Challenge is one of a growing number of organizations on college campuses that allow students to learn entrepreneurial skills and participate in pitch competitions.

In the present academic year, GVSU students fared well at pitch competitions. They won a collective $102,875 through 24 awards that they now can use to pursue their ideas.

Vanderham and Seifert won $10,000 at the annual statewide Accelerate Michigan competition, $2,000 from MWest Challenge, and $4,500 at the recent Walmart-sponsored International Business Model Competition.

In Kalamazoo, industrial and entrepreneurial engineering major Amber Delgado recently won $10,000 in an event organized by Starting Gate, Western Michigan University’s student business accelerator. Delgado created a work surface for use by architects and other professionals working in the field with large prints.

Delgado will use the money to produce 50 prototypes for prospective customers to test. Starting Gate taught her “the art of business planning, connected me with several local entrepreneurs, and helped me gain the confidence to pitch my idea to any investor or customer.”

“The Starting Gate program has given me so many opportunities, and now with this financial backing, I can move my business even further down the path to success,” Delgado said in a WMU news release announcing the third annual Brian Patrick Thomas Entrepreneurial Spirit Award.

Even if students never form their own businesses, they can differentiate themselves in the workplace with the skills they’ve learned in an entrepreneurship program and via participating in a pitch competition, Almallah said.

“More and more employers are looking for those students with an entrepreneurial mindset, tools, skills and who can innovate and come up with new products and opportunities,” she said. “They’re really looking for the entrepreneurial student with the marketing skill, or the entrepreneurial student with the management skill. They need that talent and creativity and innovation with their organizations.”

That’s the big difference in students graduating with a degree in business or management, Almallah said.

GVSU’s program focuses on giving students the ability, for example, to identify and recognize opportunities and craft solutions to market problems with a product or service “that addresses a real need or a real problem in the marketplace,” she said. 

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