Student Entrepreneurs Shine, Overcome Obstacles in Annual Business Competition
“Work for yourself out of college,” read a reminder that flashed on Weston Tennes Stewart’s ‘17 laptop in the January of his senior year. In that moment, he knew he had to win the Seventh Annual Freirich Business Plan Competition. A year of hard work and determination made his goal a reality, despite the stiff competition. According to Roy Rotheim, director of the competition, “[this year's] intensity and seriousness of the students who participated in the competition… were unsurpassed.” Stewart is weeks away from graduation, after which he plans to move back to California and be his own boss. “It was always my goal out of college.”
For the past year, Stewart has been working with lifelong friends Max Novak and Ian Lituchy, crafting a fast casual French fry business, Fries First. A love for carne asada fries and cooking, coupled with a wide open fry market, inspired the venture, which will materialize into either a food truck or a brick and mortar business. For young entrepreneurs, gaining investors is difficult, but thanks to his first place finish at the competition, Stewart is ahead $20,000.
Putting the fry samples Stewart prepared in the dining hall test kitchen moments before his presentation, preparation for the final round of competition included making the fry samples moments before his presentation and an emphasis on creating a unique brand, a plan for scaling his business, and proving his concept. For the latter, Stewart organized two pop-up sales, one at the Spa on campus and the other at the Henry Street Tavern in April. Organizing the pop-up shop at Henry Street was one of Stewart’s greatest challenges. Fortunately, the mentor assigned to him by the competition was able to connect him with the restaurant.
Stewart rests his victory on his strong presentation skills, which allowed him to incorporate his unique creativity and strong personality. “It’s important to show who the person is, which is only really possible in the presentation,” Stewart explained. Various other colleges have similar business plan competitions, but with less emphasis on creativity. “I probably wouldn’t have won at other schools.”
Yuelin He ’19, who placed second in the competition with her Asian dessert business, MoonForest, echoed Stewart’s sentiments regarding the importance of communication. “To me, entrepreneurs are ones who make things happen. And accomplishing that requires communicating well with others that by the end of the conversation, you sold your ideas, learned from their experience, and even have them willing to help you.”
He’s business underwent various changes; it was originally an Asian cosmetics and dessert company called HaloVenus (which competed in the first round of the competition, with the partnership of He and Danning Ma ‘17), before focusing just on desserts for the final round. Just last week, He decided to change the business’ name to MoonForest. Since last summer, He has sold 9,600 mooncakes, and will spend this summer researching and developing, as well as selling in China. In the fall, He is setting her sites on expanding her business to include Paris.
Ian Carter ‘19 and Nick Henning ‘19 have been friends for long enough to forget the name of their first band. The pair presented their business, Music Match, at the competition, placing third in the final round. The idea is simple: a website that hosts non-professional musicians who virtually connect with and teach students using improved technology that mitigates lag time between audio and video. Other businesses offering virtual music lessons do exist, however the teachers on these sites are all professionals. Music Match will offer customers the freedom to browse a database of amateur, yet high quality, instructor profiles before selecting their teacher.
Carter and Henning recognized that not everyone is a ‘music nerd’ like them, but have a desire to learn an instrument nonetheless. “Different people value lessons for different reasons,” Henning explained. “What people are paying for… is the experience… taking the time to play music with someone who is patient.” Currently, there is a disconnect between the demands of conservatory trained professionals offering lessons, and the average pupil. “We understand music is one thing among many,” Henning said.
The pair points to the professors and mentors who helped them along the way as the other ace in their pocket. “We don’t have the age, experience, or the money of our competitors, but they don’t have access to the Skidmore community, and we do.” After the first round of competition, each team is assigned a successful business-person as a mentor who advises the group on every aspect of their proposal. Director of the competition, Roy Rotheim, says he would not have it any other way. “What makes it ever so consistent with the educational atmosphere at Skidmore, is that there was throughout a strong emphasis on education, support, and mentoring.”
The competition’s fourth place finisher, Hadley Haselmann ‘17, was presented with a unique learning experience. Haselmann, founder of The Global Exchange Project, a website that connects travelers with hosts in foreign countries, had an intense falling out with her business partners from the first round of competition. The incident left her at square one just two weeks before the final competition. Even this frustrating roadblock had a silver lining. “I think it was a blessing in disguise,” Haselman wrote. “it taught me so much. Having that experience taught me about partnerships, about trusting your ideas and passions, about having confidence and drive within yourself, and about persistence. My professor Cathy Hill use to say in class to fail early. Fail early, learn a lot from it, and then move on.”
Haselmann was inspired by her own travels and a stay with a host family. Simply put, there are experiences a traveler cannot have without living with a native. “With the Global Exchange Project,” Haselmann explained, “every experience is different and unique and 100% personally connected to the local and their life. This project doesn't just redefine travel, it provides people with global connections, a dual exchange of cultural skills and knowledge, and gives sustainable income to local individuals and families for sharing their homes and experiences specific to their cultures.”
Currently, her business is in the website-building stage. She estimates that the project will be ready to launch by the summer, just in time for summer vacations. “I have people ready and excited for it and don't want to keep them waiting.”
Photos from Skidmore.edu