From Ideas to Prizes: ECU’s Entrepreneur’s Cup Success

By: Sunnie Dawn Baker

Anticipation filled the air at the Omni Hotel. It was April 30th, students and faculty from East Central University anxiously awaited the results for the i2e Entrepreneur’s Cup, sponsored by Love’s. This journey officially began in January, though all the ECU students in attendance had been thinking about this moment since long before. The Entrepreneur’s Cup isn’t just a pitch competition; it challenges the students to think through their business ideas in a very real and serious way.

Dr. Stacey Bolin, Associate Professor for the Harland C. Stonecipher School of Business and Director of the Wilburn L. Smith Center for Entrepreneurship, offers a class every spring semester called “Venture Creation.” This class prepares students to compete in the Entrepreneur’s Cup. Students can still compete even if they are not in the class, but competing on their own time is much more difficult due to the tremendous amount of work involved.

Classes began in mid-January, but by the end of the month, each student had to complete a “deal summary.” This is a one-page synopsis of their idea and what they are expecting to ask for from investors. After completing their deal summary, each student is paired with an industry professional to practice discussing their idea and receive helpful feedback. Students finish these conversations by the second week of February and are expected to complete full business plans by the end of the month. The business plans are a maximum of 18 pages long. According to Bolin, these plans consist of 10 pages for the main part of their project and include pro forma financial statements at the end, which projects future expenses and revenues. However, these were not just business plans; they constituted the first round of the competition and determined who would compete in the semi-finals on April 11th.

Bolin was ecstatic when the semi-finals were announced. ECU secured five out of the eight spots in the Small Business Division: Jolee Grinstead with “Clean Living,” Godsgift Ezedinma with “Godsgift,” Hunter Cook with “Forwritten,” Alyssa McCullar with “Safety Zone,” and Vivian Tapia with “Two Cat’s Bakery.” Once the announcement was made, it was time to start preparations. At the competition, each student begins with a 90-second pitch followed by a 20-minute presentation. After this, they engage in 10 minutes of Q&A with the judges, a session that often exceeds the allotted time. To get ready for the competition, Bolin had them all go through multiple practice rounds to get the competition experience. She would bring in business professionals to ask the hard questions so that when they did compete, it would not be so scary.

When the day finally came, the students were nervous but ready. On the first day of competition, April 11th, the students gave their semi-final presentations. The following day they would interview for the Oklahoma Business Roundtable Paulsen Scholarship Award, which can be awarded to any student who is continuing their education, in either an undergraduate or graduate program. That evening, they awaited the news of which teams would compete in the finals the next day. Only six teams would advance. When they announced the finalists, Bolin felt thrilled that four of ECU’s five teams had advanced to the finals. They spent the evening pouring over the feedback from the semi-finals and got some rest so they would be alert and ready to go the next morning.

The finals operate just like the semi-finals; teams perform their pitch, presentation, and answer questions. One of the tricky aspects, however, is that a completely different set of judges presides, making it impossible to predict their focus. In the semi-finals, the judges heavily emphasized marketing, but in the finals, they prioritized finances. The teams had to prepare to answer any question and pivot as necessary.

After the competition concluded, they faced the long wait until the awards announcement on April 30th. When the results were finally announced, the teams from ECU were overjoyed. Hunter Cook took first place, Alyssa McCullar took second place, and Vivian Tapia won the pitch competition. In addition to this, they had two scholarship winners: Godsgift Ezedinma and Jolee Grinstead. All five students who competed in the semi-finals returned home with prizes, including the one who did not advance to the finals. Upon totaling the prizes, the students from ECU brought home an amazing $35,000 in prize and scholarship money.

This experience is more than just an assignment for a class; it actively contributes to business creation in our community. Previous winners from ECU, like Pampered Paw and McNoodle’s Craft Emporium, have successfully established businesses. Among the teams that competed this year, three have already gained good traction with their ideas and are progressing forward. The other two will need a physical location so it will take a little more time to get fully started, but they are still motivated to succeed. Bolin says, “It is exciting for me to get to learn alongside the students and build their knowledge, but I also love to see the confidence build and grow. It can be tough to believe in success when you have ideas but have never built a business before. But then they see that they can do this.” This program offers experiences that can ultimately enrich our community, but, perhaps even more significantly, it can change lives.

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