Finalists prepare for the last leg of the Business Plan Competition: A profile of the six finalists

Posted by Rashawnda Williams, Contributing Writer

With the fast approaching final round of the Kenneth A. Freirich Business Plan Competition, the six student finalists, selected on Feb. 7, are preparing to submit final business proposals for prize money totaling $35,000. The prize will be awarded to the students (or team of students) who write the best business plans. The prizes are intended to help students start a new business or to assist the development of their existing business.

The competition is coordinated by Paula Tancredi, lecturer in Management and Business at Skidmore College. From now until the final round on April 11, students will work with the judges from the finalists selection panel, which include Geoffrey Citron, Andrew Eifler '07, Laurie J. Giddins '82, Jim Rossi '82 and Michael Stein '89.

One of the student finalists is Adam Beek '15, a business major originally from Jamaica. His business proposal consists of starting a medical marijuana importing business to the United States from Jamaica. Beek saw the business competition during his first year, and was thus inspired to participate himself.For the past couple of months he has been working with farmers of Cascade in the Blue Mountains of Portland, Jamaica.

"These farmers have been farmers their whole lives farming land that's been farmland from the beginning," Beek said. "Right now we're doing greenhouse farming and farming romaine lettuce. We're going  to move into broccoli, cabbage and red seedless grapes. And as soon as we're certified to grow medical marijuana, we're going to move into medical marijuana."

Asked what made him want to go into medical marijuana, Beek pointed to its rising demand in today's society.

"It's a booming industry right now and Jamaica is one of the most suitable climates, especially the Blue Mountain range, which is one of the most fertile areas in Jamaica," Beek said. "Put two and two together and assume that Blue Mountain can produce some of the best marijuana from Jamaica."

Beek said he has learned a great deal from the competition and has been able to apply much of what he's learned to his classes. One of the best parts, according to Beek, has been meeting people in the business world and preparing for life after college.

"These judges aren't here to see you present a project, they're expecting you to pursue your concept and see it through," Beek said. "If you fail, you fail, but they want to see you give it all you've got."

Beek said thatthe only worry he has is the unpredictability of business and the high risk factor involved in entrepreneurship. However, he isn't worried about entering into the competition with a taboo subject like the distribution of marijuana.

"There is science behind it now and it's not as up in the air as it was before," Beek said.  "Also, two states have already legalized it [Colorado and Washington] and around 20 states have legalized the medical production and distribution of it. It's not as taboo as most may think, but it still has a bad reputation. There's a lot more to be learned and the industry is rapidly growing right now so we'll see how it goes."       

Beek, who has prepared for this competition since last summer, says he still has a long way to go in fully developing his business plan. With the business world continuously changing and the medical marijuana market growing rapidly, his work is never really finished.

"What I've been able to get out of [the competition] is being able to use my resources. So whether it is a professor, a business man in Jamaica or a banker, you have a business plan that you take to someone to review and they give you feedback," Beek said. "The competition encourages you to seek help when it is needed, which is what business is all about: relying on other people to help you along the way."

Another pair of finalists, Ezra Levy '15 and Marcella Jewell '15, are working more locally with the web-based Open Campus, which matches college students with businesses offering skill-specific work. Students may advertise their skills through the online portfolios provided by the site.

The idea for Open Campus first arose during Levy's work at a local, nonprofit theatre, and later he joined with Jewell to create Open Campus. The projects generated from these connections can range from commercial photography, menu designs for local cafes, theater company posts, entrepreneurial business logos and Photoshop jobs.

"I realized the potential of Open Campus to boost the productivity of professionals and students alike by connecting students with local businesses to complete projects," Levy said, "gaining them the experience they need to compete in the job market following college."

Levy said that their team focused on forming personal connections and completing short-term projects in matching up students with suitable businesses. Jewell interned with Troy Web Consulting to learn the skills necessary to develop their website, the first version of which can be found at www.projectopencanvas.com, where students may sign up on and post their own projects.

Should they win, Levy said that they plan to use their prize money to improve the quality of their website and to fuel the business growth throughout the Capital Region this summer. They would hope to expand into schools in the Boston-area by early 2015.

"We are just ecstatic to be helping students get the experience they need while boosting the productivity of the local business community," Levy said. "Marcella and I look forward to continued success for the whole community."

Other student proposals have a more virtual quality to them. Leaf Pile Media, LLC, a transmedia storytelling start-up directed at children and young adults created by seniors Walter Barber, Ian VanNest and Andrew Zimmermann, is an original fictional universe on the scale of Harry Potter, Tolkien or Pokemon, which the group has been developing for the previous two years.

The universe will contain a wealth of original characters and environments, drawing on influences from ancient Greek and Japanese mythology, hip-hop aesthetics and modern folklore. The group hopes to expand this idea to various entertainment platforms, including a board game, a series of graphic novels and a mobile game.

"Ian, Andrew and I have been best friends since freshmen year," Barber said, "and co-authoring this narrative came as a logical next step. We live for this stuff, and we think we've got a lot to offer the industry."

Barber said that there has been a positive response to the project, with a great deal of support from family, friends and the Skidmore College community. Should the team place in the top three of the competition, they will use the prize money to fund their grassroots marketing campaign, traveling and displaying their products across the country. Their intended destinations range from game and comic book conventions to local comic book stores and youth centers. Their marketing efforts will cumulate in a major kick-starter campaign to help fund the project.

"Honestly, we eat, sleep and breathe this project. I can't even begin to count the nights the three of us have stayed up until four in the morning, pouring over our storyboards and the mechanics of our games," Barber said. "This is our dream, and we plan to take it as far as it can go. We're thinking big, and we are confident that with all the amazing support we're receiving we can take this thing all the way and really make Skidmore proud."

Students' business proposals will venture overseas as well, as with  sophomore Stella Langat 's Double Dee's LLC, an undergarment production company directed at the modern African woman.

Langat said she was inspired by the multiple trips she took to the market in Kenya with her partners, who are students at other universities, to find well fitting and reasonably priced bras. A limited selection, due to a lack of bra manufacturing in Kenya, would force them to turn to the imported bras in stores that were far too expensive.

"Last summer when we took our trip we could not even figure out our sizes nor understand all the varying measurements of second-hand and unhygienic bras from all over the world," Langat said. "We then sat down and decided that it was the right time to stop feeling disappointed and start working on a company."

Langat spent eight months researching production in Africa, originally contacting Chinese manufacturers until her participation in the Harvard Women in Business Competition last October, in which Double Dee LLC was one of the finalists, encouraged her to look for another manufacturing option. She decided to train seamstresses in Kenya, supporting homegrown social entrepreneurship, which she describes as the key to the current emerging African economy. Should she win, Langat plans to use the money to invest in Double Dee LLC's first collection, as well as to develop a fully-functioning website, train seamstresses and pay the rent for her first store in Nairobi.

"I am so excited to do this, and it definitely is one of the fulfilling things I am currently involved in. It also has to do with the great passion I have in supporting women from a society where inequality is so loud," Langat said. "Besides being intelligent as a woman, a decent dress code boosts confidence. I am supporting women in all fields in my country, and giving back is the best part in my life so far."

In a different part of the world lies the inspiration for sophomore Alexander Nassief  and senior Zach Rohde 's Rum Dog Inc., which took second place in last year's competition. Nassief, who also worked on the project last year, is developing a patent-pending underwater method to create a premium, local rum for his home in Dominica, a process he has thought about since he was 15. Nassief's method involves submerging rum into the Caribbean Sea and using various elements of the ocean to improve its taste, color and smell.

Nassief said that rum is a source of national pride for his homeland, and is especially popular with tourists who prefer the local drink over foreign brands.

"I had the frustration of not having a rum that I could be proud of within my country," Nassief said. As part of his research, he analyzed how different industries aged rum, such as Zacapa Rum, which ages its alcohol in the Andes of Guatemala, using the cool temperatures to slow down the aging process. Unfortunately for Nassief, Dominica did not have mountains at nearly the same altitude.

"That's when I first thought about inverting it-going deep," Nassief said. "The inspiration came from so many different places."

An increasing demand for local rum has led the group to focus on capitalizing on the growing market in Dominica. After putting its product online, Rum Dog Inc. will enter into a partnership with Secret Bay, Dominica, which will give complementary Rum Dog rum to hotel guests, possibly expanding to other islands should the company do well.

Nassief is working with a new team this year, as Brianna Barros '16, his partner from last year's competition, has moved on to pursue her own entrepreneurial desires, although she still remains involved in the project in an unofficial context. She is succeeded by Rohde, who Nassief said brings a lot to the team with his knowledge of lifestyle branding for the company's long-term goals.

"The competition's changed quite a bit," Nassief said. "Everyone's just presenting pitches that are far more well thought out; it's clear they've done their homework on whatever it is they're pitching. People are becoming more and more interested in competing with this and getting the cash prize and the experience."

Nassief tested his first submerged barrel last January, and in three weeks said he could already see the improvement. Should he win the first place prize money this year, he said he hopes to have the first batch of rum out by this Christmas, and to put the flagship product online within the next two to three years.

Nassief is not the only returning competitor. Seth Berger '14, who placed third in last year's competition, is back with East Coast Lacrosse, through which he designs lacrosse uniforms, and which generated  $73,000 in revenue in the previous year, which Berger stated was a 54 percent increase from 2012.

"I'm thinking bigger than I ever have in the past," Berger said. "The feedback I got from the judges was largely that I hadn't convinced them I could scale the business effectively, so I made sure to focus on how to viably scale the business and create full-time jobs."

Berger designed uniforms for his lacrosse team as a senior in high school, and the positive feedback he received encouraged him to sell his designs at lacrosse tournaments the summer before college.

Since that time, Berger has been searching for domestic manufacturers that will provide quality products and service for his customers. He has also been working on new designs and custom orders, and continues to attend lacrosse tournaments around the Northeast during the summer to form new relationships with customers and provide them with products unique to their needs.

Berger plans to use the prize money to fund the tournament fees in setting up a booth for the second year of his internship program and to update his website (http://www.eastcoastlacrosse.com/) to improve its navigation and the customer's ability to shop for products.

"I started East Coast Lacrosse in 2010, and consistently growing year after year has shown me that I've developed a brand and products that customers are responding well to, and has potential to continue to grow," Berger said. "The lacrosse industry has continued to increase in size over the past 10+ years and I know if I continue on the momentum I've generated I can continue to grab market share in the industry."

The final round for the competition will be held at 2 p.m. on Friday, April 11 at the Tang Teaching Museum. First place will receive $20,000, donated by Freirich himself, second place will have $10,000 and third place will be awarded $5,000.

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