ATLANTA – The best and the brightest of future business leaders congregated in Atlanta this weekend for the Opportunity Funding Corporation’s Innovation & Entrepreneurship Business Plan Competition, or OFC Venture Challenge. More than 300 students on 21 teams either from historically or predominantly Black colleges competed, presenting proposals that ranged from construction and land surveying improvements to the mass production of Jamaican ginger.
The University of the West Indies at Mona, Jamaica was awarded first place, with Savannah State University taking second, and Fayetteville State University placing third. Although only one team could walk away with the top prize, discussions among students showed that each of them walked away with a sense of accomplishment.
The University of the West Indies team members presented a strategic plan for the development of the Jamaican Ginger Factory, which would surpass global market competitors through the use of greenhouse gas in ginger production. Judges were impressed with the operational structure and general marketing strategies. Taja Simpson, a member of the West Indies team and a first-time participant in the competition, stated she was “happy to be a part of such a great event and have the chance to meet students from across the nation.”
Ericka Williams, a member of the Savannah State University team, looked forward to the empowerment that the competition has given her and her school. “The biggest takeaway from this weekend,” she said, “is that I can set a milestone for my school, and set the bar higher next year.”
Participating teams, comprised of MBA graduate students, had been preparing since last September, and developed a full business plan, complete with operating, financial and manufacturing components, and presented their plans to a panel of six judges. Each five-member team had 15 minutes to deliver their presentation, and then faced 15 minutes of difficult questions from the panel. Many teams benefitted from having an interdisciplinary group consisting of students concentrating in finance, administration and marketing. Three teams advanced to the last round of the competition, which took place Saturday, with the winner receiving the $15,000 championship prize. One member from the winning team will go on to compete in the Global Venture Labs Investment Competition, formerly known as the Global Moot Court Competition in Austin, Texas.
Coinciding with the competition, which is one component of an annual 3-day conference sponsored by the Opportunity Funding Corporation (OFC), were the National Policy Forum on Minority Entrepreneurship Education and the HBCU Dean/Faculty Development Seminar.
OFC was established in 1970 as a nonprofit that helped to attract capital investments into impoverished African-American communities. The organization helped generate direct loans and investments that brought in over $66 million for 184 minority owned businesses across 35 states. In 1984, OFC added a for-profit entity, OFC, Inc., that has funneled capital into minority communities and explored a range of models to determine best practices for investing in these communities.
Despite the organization’s success, however, the failure rate of U.S. minority-owned businesses has remained high. In 2000, the Executive Director of OFC, Dr. Mohammad Bhuiyan, surmised one explanation for this failure. Although there are 105 historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs) in the U.S., none of them had entrepreneurship-training programs. Dr. Bhuiyan developed the OFC Venture Challenge to help schools create innovative business programs that support young African-American men and women in becoming successful entrepreneurs.
The program helps open students’ eyes to the business world, for the first time allowing them to hone the skills needed to grow a venture successfully. Many schools return year after year, boosting their program with the business plan competition. Pamela Jackson, from Fayetteville State University, called the program a “fabric of our curriculum.”
The conference has graduated successful alumni, with many going on to work for top-tier companies, patent new technologies and own their own businesses. Sam’s Club executives have deemed the conference a “gold mine for a recruiter,” and have hired a number of OFC Venture Challenge graduates. As one volunteer, who graduated from the program in 2003 stated, the competition is “quite impressionable,” and leaves a lasting legacy on participating students.
Dr. James A. Anderson, Chancellor of Fayetteville State University, a school that has won four out of the last six competitions, said that the types of plans proposed have responded well to business innovations of the time, leading to more technologically based ideas. Alumni from Fayetteville State University have gone on to develop and apply for patents on a variety of ventures, and count the OFC Venture Challenge as an eye-opening experience.
The OFC conference, which is held annually in Atlanta, has a three-tiered mission: to engage students in practical business proposal planning through competition, engage deans and faculty members in meaningful discussion of best practices and to encourage business and government leaders to participate in minority entrepreneurship education issues. William Clement, the OFC Chairman, deems it “a very significant forum for ideas and thoughts within business education.”
This year’s seminar featured prominent keynote speakers, among them Erroll Davis, University System of Georgia Chancellor. He explained one challenge with funding minority-serving institution in terms easy to understand by the conference audience that included HBCU deans and presidents. All too frequently, he said, education funding “rewards institutions based on inputs rather than outputs.” In order to ensure the best opportunity for students, he continued, institutions also must focus on outputs, making sure that students are retained through innovative programs and that they graduate equipped with practical skills that assist them in business ventures.
Dr. Beverly Tatum, Spelman College President, was applauded for the school’s 83 percent graduation rate. In order to retain students and increase the school’s graduation rate to 85 percent, she announced a pilot program, “Earn While You Learn,” which will reward students with apprenticeship opportunities throughout their academic career. She went on to say that graduate retention and graduation levels must be linked to innovation, and that students who are engaged will thrive.
David West, President and CEO of the Hershey Company, was especially supportive of business writing and sales initiatives among higher education, particularly in regards to educating future entrepreneurs. He has worked with Fayetteville State University on a sales curriculum within their business program, and is looking to collaborate with other schools after the conference. The business leader spoke freely with students and even gave individual feedback on their presentations.
Although a number of business leaders mingled before the highly anticipated awards ceremony on Saturday night, the attention was solely on the students. Keynote speakers Debra Lee, CEO of BET Networks, and Chris Williams, CEO of Williams Capital Group, both encouraged students to continue their studies and to maintain the level of excellence they showed during the competition.
Additional speakers included: Brian Cornell, President and CEO of Sam’s Club, Michael Coles, President of Global Onboard Partners, Mike Eskew, CEO of UPS, Leonard Schlesinger, President of Babson College, Doug Conant, President and CEO of Campbell’s Soup Company.
Disclosure: Diverse magazine president and CEO William E. Cox serves on the OFC board of governors.
Correction: It was originally reported that the University of the District of Columbia team placed third in the OFC Venture Challenge competition. This was an error and the story has been corrected. The third place team is Fayetteville State University.