Winning matchup: Sports arenas meet social changemakers

UNC student startup EATS2SEATS – which helps nonprofit organizations create fundraising wins – lands a big win of its own: the People’s Choice Award from the ACC InVenture Prize competition.

April 30, 2021
By Brock Pierce, Innovate Carolina

Imagine that you’re running a hard-working but financially fragile nonprofit that’s focused on solving any number of pressing human challenges. You have a small staff who would jump at the chance to raise funds, perhaps by staffing a concession booth at your local sports stadium. Across town sits the arena for your local sports teams with concession lines that are typically too long, too slow and understaffed. So what’s to stop these nonprofits and sports venues from teaming up to raise funds and revenue?

Traditionally, sports venues require season-long contracts that are challenging for smaller nonprofits with limited staffs to fulfill. With only a few people available to work a handful of games, most local nonprofits don’t enough people on hand to take on the game-after-game rigor of entire seasons. The result? Too many small nonprofits sit on the sidelines and miss out on fundraising opportunities, while sports venues lose revenue due to inefficient concession operations that suffer from a suffer from a lack of staffing.

Recognition of this problem by UNC-Chapel Hill student Mary Laci Motley – and her drive to create a company with the social soul to solve it – earned her EATS2SEATS startup the most votes in the People’s Choice Award at the 2021 ACC InVenture Prize competition. EATS2SEATS, which Motley founded in 2019, uses mobile technology and an innovative approach to staffing operations to allow nonprofits to conveniently sign up to work concessions stands at sports arenas – in a way that fits their schedules, staffing capacities and fundraising goals.

Motley’s EATS2SEATS venture represented UNC-Chapel Hill as the University’s top student innovation team at the ACC InVenture Prize, an annual event that features undergraduate student entrepreneurs from 15 Atlantic Coast Conference (ACC) schools. The teams compete against one another to pitch their inventions or businesses before a panel of judges. This year, the competition included a People’s Choice Award, which allowed the public to cast digital votes for their favorite teams in early April, several weeks prior the competition finals on April 21.  During the finals, the competition announced the winners: first place (UV Scope from NC State University), second place (Reachable Solutions from the University of Pittsburgh) and people’s choice (EATS2SEATS from UNC-Chapel Hill).

For Motley, competing against the ACC’s top student innovation teams has been an exciting experience. But the impetus to launch her venture wasn’t to win prizes. It’s always been her drive to help those who create public good in the community.

“EATS2SEATS evolved from my experience struggling to fundraise with a local nonprofit. I am so passionate about our work because of the amazing people involved,” Motley said. “I have met the most incredible individuals and organizations dedicated to improving the lives of others. To hear how EATS2SEATS has enabled organizations to launch new projects, fund nonprofit missions, and help facilitate community improvement initiatives has been the most rewarding experience.”

Motley’s company quickly gained traction in the pre-COVID environment, which it is quickly reestablishing as sports venues reopen in 2021. When EATS2SEATS launched in fall 2019, it instantly scaled to seven Division-I sports venues across the southeast, earning $60,000 in revenue during its first season – half of which went to its nonprofit partners.

Running a startup and preparing to take on the ACC’s best, all while being a student in the Robertson Scholars Leadership Program through UNC-Chapel Hill and Duke University, is a daunting task. But even prior to the competition, Motley had formulated a plan that would prove instrumental: recruiting an intern team.

“We had already been working on building out an intern program, and luckily, the competition aligned perfectly with the timing of our hires,” she said. Motley credits her new intern marketing team of Carolina students Brylie Major, Charlotte Geier and Harrison Abernathy for helping get out the vote for EATS2SEATS during their first week on the job.

The tangible spoils of the competition for EATS2SEATS include a $5,000 prize, which Motley will put to immediate use when she graduates in May and begins working on EATS2SEATS full-time. She’ll use the competition funding to cover legal expenses associated with landing new stadium contracts in the Raleigh-Durham region – beginning with contract negotiations for the upcoming fall football season. Kimi Yingling, the student engagement management who manages Innovate Carolina’s 1789 Student Innovation Community and worked to support Motley in preparation for the competition, also sees gains that extend beyond the financial. 

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“To hear how EATS2SEATS has enabled organizations to launch new projects, fund nonprofit missions, and help facilitate community improvement initiatives has been the most rewarding experience.””
Mary Laci Motley, UNC student and founder of EATS2SEATS

“In this competition, there is a very limited amount of time to pitch, and students must work to describe the mission and impact of their venture in a concise way for a diverse group of judges and be prepared for live Q&A,” said Yingling, who also credits Launch Chapel Hill director Velvet Nelson and clinical associate professor Tim Flood from Kenan-Flagler Business School instrumental supporters of EATS2SEATS during the ACC InVenture Prize. “Students gain skills in poise and professionalism, as well as entrepreneurship as they work to prepare a proper delivery. They connect with other teams and ventures from across the entire ACC, and their entrepreneurial networks grow, which means the ventures gain exposure and the students gain confidence.”

As Motley and team sprinted through the competition prep period this spring – from mobilizing digital get-out-the-vote efforts to collaborating with new partners to crafting the perfect pitch – new resources, lessons and opportunities emerged. She describes 1789, Launch Chapel Hill and entrepreneurial programs at the Kenan-Flagler Business School as “transformational” to her Carolina experience. “The network, funding and atmosphere of like-minded peers and mentors create a tight-knit community with unmatched support that has been pivotal in my entrepreneurial journey,” she said.

“I was reminded of how lucky I am to be a part of the Innovate Carolina family. I continue to be amazed at the number of UNC entrepreneurs, faculty, students and community members who want to support local businesses and startups,” Motley explained. “The competition helped EATS2SEATS form new relationships and gain exposure to partnerships with nonprofits in the area.”

It’s exciting to bring home an ACC trophy to Chapel Hill, said Yingling, but working with students like Motley is the greatest reward. In Motley’s case, Yingling points to a winning combination: a concern for community primed by an entrepreneurial, problem-solving spirit.  

“Mary Laci has contagious energy and an amazing attention to detail, but most of all, a passion for social impact,” said Yingling. “She is fixing a problem she sees affect small nonprofits, as well as rethinking the stadium concession experience. Because of EATS2SEATS, there is more money invested back into your community and someone delivering a hotdog to your seat. Does it get any better than that?”