With the spring semester in full swing, most University of Mississippi students are focused on studying for midterms and getting ready for spring break. However, students involved in the UM Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship’s marquee event of the semester have a little bit more than bluebooks and beaches on their minds.
The Gillespie Business Plan Competition is a contest held every spring at UM. Students, both graduate and undergraduate, are encouraged to submit an original business plan in hopes of winning a cash prize. From here, judges deliberate which ideas have the most potential, and call back students for the semi-final round.
In the semi-final round, students prepare a presentation no longer than eight minutes and answer questions posed by judges. In the final round, students present their ideas again, but this time, they accompany their presentations with a 10-page business plan. Business ideas ranking in the top three spots receive cash prizes and an opportunity to jumpstart their business.
Richard Gentry, Ph.D., an associate professor of management at UM and competition administrator, has been working with the contest about six years. This year, they have had more entries than every before.
“Normally, we see about 40 applicants each year, but this year, that number rose by about 15-20 percent,” said Gentry. “From those applicants, we take about 17 teams to the semi-final round, and then normally around six teams to the final round.”
The contest is open to UM students of all majors. In fact, students who aren’t business majors are encouraged to apply.
“We prefer to have non-business students enter because they have a wider range of experiences,” said Gentry. Better ideas come from students who aren’t just thinking about the business end of things.”
The contest objective is not merely for students to win a cash prize, but for them to be able to have the skill sets to effectively and efficiently form a cohesive business plan. It is all about setting the contestants up for future success.
“The contest is there, essentially, to assess how far along people are in the match between what they are creating and what people want,” said Gentry. “The first place prize is a $5,000 check to the winning company. They company will gain an extra $5,000 if they perform performance benchmarks. The prize money works the same way for second and third place, but with smaller sums of money. They goal is to get these company ideas incorporated.”
Students are allowed to compete with the same business idea multiple years in a row, as long as they aren’t awarded one of the cash prizes. In fact, participating again with an idea that doesn’t place the first go-around is encouraged.
“Our judges are successful people that want to come back and judge the contest,” Gentry said. “They are there to give general feedback and walk through ideas with students. The judges ask questions and give advice on how to make these ideas more successful.”
Some of the most successful ideas have come from students who entered multiple years in a row. Last year, William Ault and Sara Kiparizoska won the the competition with their business idea, Curtsy, a smartphone application that allows clothing to be rented between students at participating universities. Ault and Kiparizoska submitted their idea the year prior, but did not win until the idea was planned out more thoroughly a year later.
“William and Sara’s app is now doing very successful, with funding of about $1.7 million,” said Gentry. The app is also available on a number of college campuses, not just Ole Miss.”
Another previous winner was Janet McCarty. McCarty launched her organic dog biscuit line, Cotton’s Café, with help from the Gillespie Business Plan Competition prize money.
“Cotton’s Café is one of the other successful winners of contest,” said Gentry. Janet has her organic dog treats in stores like Hollywood Feed and Whole Foods.”
Typically any idea is accepted. The only true limitation is that the idea must be legal.
“We pretty much take everything,” said Gentry. “We have taken apps, dog biscuits, clothing labels, and even breast pumps. There is not a set-in-stone rule for what qualifies as a good idea.”
Many students create ideas for the contest, but other students use the contest as a way to kick start ideas they are already working on. Pontus Anderson, CEO of Myra Mirrors, and his business team have been working on their company for over a year, and they hope to launch their product in the near future. The contest prize money would be a large help in getting the company off the ground.
Sophomore, Tori Servais of Castle Rock, Colorado, was just one of many students who entered the Gillespie Business Plan Competition this year.
“I entered the contest to gain a better understanding of how to create a business plan and how to pitch a business idea,” said Servais. “I hoped to gain some insight on how to build a business from the ground up.”
Blair Wortsmith, a sophomore from Little Rock, also entered the contest.
“I wanted to learn a set of skills that I could use in my future career,” said Wortsmith. “I thought that the contest would be a good way to apply some of the things I have learned in my business classes to an actual business idea.”
Other unique ideas submitted by students this year included a tutoring website tailored to participating universities, and a website that allows pilots and aviation specialists to connect online. Both ideas moved on to compete in the semi-final round.
For more information about the Gillespie Business Plan Competition, you can visit the CIE website. The final round of this year’s contest will be held on April 7.