The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

11.11.19

Rising to the entrepreneurial challenge

UNC-Chapel Hill students bring bold ideas to the Carolina Challenge Pitch Party, which jumpstarts student entrepreneurs and helps fuel an upswing in new business creation locally and nationally.

Student pitch participants at the 2019 Carolina Challenge Pitch Party

Why Innnovators Care

The number of new companies created each year in the United States is on the decline. Competitions like the Carolina Challenge Pitch Party give students the funding and entrepreneurial lessons they need to launch and grow new ventures. 

115

Student venture teams in the pitch competition

39

Majors and degree programs among participants

$5,200

In total prize money distributed to student venture teams

What gives a college student the confidence to greet hundreds of strangers and pitch the idea of making leather out of mushrooms? Or to explain why musicians should use artificial intelligence to write better songs? Or how a cold storage device they invented will help farmers in India double their income?

The only thing more impressive than the multitude of bold student ideas on display at the Carolina Challenge Pitch Party last week was the gumption the students showed in pitching them. For weeks leading up to this year’s edition of UNC-Chapel Hill’s largest campus-wide student pitch competition, 115 student teams worked hard to hone entrepreneurial ideas and build the fortitude to pitch them to 250 judges. 


“The Pitch Party is the most important student entrepreneurship event at UNC and the Triangle,” said Jim Kitchen, a professor of the practice at Kenan-Flagler Business School whose students participate in the competition as part of his Business 500 Introduction to Entrepreneurship course. “It allows students to get feedback on their ideas, practice their pitches, find new team members and collaborate with other like-minded entrepreneurs. And it’s just so much fun – there is so much energy and excitement.”

Entrepreneurship can get lonely when you have your head in the game and you’re grinding. Events like this remind you that there are other students in the same space and that there are mentors in the community who are willing to help you out.

Pevani Pera, student co-founder of Acta Solutions

 

The competition, which is hosted and organized staff and student teams from the business school’s Entrepreneurship Center, is anything but an enclave for only business students. Rather, it’s a campus-wide endeavor that drew student teams from 25 different degree programs this year, including students who are earning a minor through the College of Arts and Sciences’ Shuford Program in Entrepreneurship.

“The Carolina Challenge Pitch Party brings together a diverse group of innovators from across campus into one large room for an electric three-hour period to share ideas and make valuable connections with mentors and peers,” said Aspyn Fulcher, program coordinator at the Entrepreneurship Center. “It’s a launching pad into the number of resources within Carolina’s network that help entrepreneurs grow their ideas, businesses and non-profits.  Both of Carolina Challenge’s signature events, the Pitch Party and Makeathon, are stepping stones for the entrepreneurially minded in the Carolina community to branch outside their comfort zones to learn new skills like pitching ideas or prototyping. These events are for students who are new to entrepreneurship and those with years of experience.”

 

 

2019 winning teams

Entrepreneurial lessons that endure

As Kitchen notes, the event is both fun and fulfilling for students. Their hard work and preparation pay dividends – in the form of immediate funding and long-term entrepreneurial lessons.

A group of judges connected to the Carolina community – entrepreneurial experts, seasoned investors, University staff and students – roam the Blue Zone at Kenan Stadium with ears open to the most compelling pitches from student teams, which stretch far and wide across the expansive space. Students must find ways to stand out and convincingly sell their ideas in a matter of seconds, all with the goal to collect votes – in the form of coveted blue and white poker chips – from the judges. The top three teams in each of five early-to-late stage social and non-social categories earn prize money to fund their ventures.

 

Yet, even the teams that don’t win a financial reward earn some something that has longer lasting value: insights on how to build a team, develop an idea, get feedback and communicate effectively.

“It’s a brand new experience for me. I’ve never pitched before,” said Temoor Dard, a first-year student whose team AIDA has an idea for using artificial intelligence to render 3D models to reduce the cost and time involved in video game development. “For us it was a lot of late nights in Davis Library planning this out, looking over the pitch until 1 o’clock in the morning. We brainstormed with our team and spoke to a lot of experts. We wanted to get stakeholder buy in, so we used LinkedIn and cold called a lot of experts in video game development and venture capitalists. We got their feedback, and that’s how we structured our pitch.”

For Pevani Pera, a student co-founder of Acta Solutions, which is a company that’s developing a turn-key technology solution that helps local governments gain faster insights from their constituents, the competition has been a chance to connect with and learn from others.

“The Pitch Party has been truly amazing. It’s interesting to interact with a lot of student entrepreneurs and see that we’re not alone,” Peri said. “Entrepreneurship can get lonely when you have your head in the game and you’re grinding. Events like this remind you that there are other students in the same space and that there are mentors in the community who are willing to help you out.”

Fueling an entrepreneurial upswing

With the Blue Zone abuzz and brimming with innovative ideas, one might find it hard to believe a fact shared by keynote speaker Amy Nelson, CEO of Venture for America (VFA): Entrepreneurship has been declining in the United States for the last 50 years. Nelson notes that the number of companies created in the U.S. annually is now negative: we’re losing 50,000 to 70,000 companies per year.


“We’re closing companies faster than we’re starting them,” said Nelson, whose VFA organization runs a fellowship program for recent college graduates who want to become startup leaders and entrepreneurs. “If we’re not creating new companies, then we’re not creating new jobs, and that has massive implications for the future of employment, labor and displacement.”

You believe in the American Dream. You know that entrepreneurs built this country and that in order to have economic resilience and to be competitive as a society, we need more entrepreneurs.

Amy Nelson, CEO of Venture for America

With Pitch Party participants hailing from the millennial era and Generation Z, the event is a proving ground for those who want to reverse the negative trends. And, as Nelson points out, the trends are substantial. Millennials are on track to become the least entrepreneurial generation in modern American history, with people under 30 three times less likely to own a business a generation ago.

Nelson sees several factors driving the trend: the mounting $1.5 trillion in student loan debt that saddles young Americans, inequitable distribution of venture capital, and a Generation Z whose childhood years growing up during the Great Recession of 2008 conditioned them to be more risk averse.

“We’ve created a generation that is so focused on building their resume and figuring out how they can look as polished and shiny as possible, and no one has ever told them to think outside the box, lean into risk or create something of their own,” said Nelson, who notes that too many students define success as landing a job at corporation like Google, McKinsey or Facebook.

“What VFA wants to do is to find people who think a little bit differently, who don’t want to use their career as just a pathway for getting another ‘A’,” she said. “But instead, it means using your career as a platform to create opportunity for others. As we know, business building is the best way.”

Aided by the growing Innovate Carolina campus network of programs across campus – including the Entrepreneurship Center, the Shuford Program and others – UNC-Chapel Hill has emerged as the No. 1 feeder school to VFA for the past two years.

The Pitch Party stands out as a model for fueling an upswing in entrepreneurial activity by jumpstarting student entrepreneurs who might participate in VFA or pursue ideas they care about in other ways.  

“It really gave me a reason to take time that I would be spending doing homework to help develop my product because it became homework for me,” said Dan Meyers, who came to the Pitch Party to promote his idea for mushroom-made leather being a eco-friendly, cost-effective alternative to the traditional leather industry. “Through this process, I prepared a lot and got a lot more comfortable being able to talk about my product and being able to sell it to other people. So it made it much easier to give time to something that I’m passionate about.”

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