New Venture grows into one of top business competitions

An idea that started with the dean of the College of Business Administration grew into one of the biggest competitions at Central Michigan University. 

It's common for business colleges to have a competition that pits teams of students against each other for capital to make their start-up business ideas a reality. But before 2010, there wasn't one at Central Michigan University. Instead, there was a two-minute "Make a Pitch" competition in the classroom that wasn't open to all students on campus.

College of Business Administration Dean Charles Crespy thought there should be something more, and initiated the creation of the New Venture Competition with the Isabella Bank Institute for Entrepreneurship in April 2011.

The competition was not without it's own unique approach to the general contest at other universities. Executive Director Debra Zellner said NVC isn't like most college's make-a-pitch competitions because CMU's process trains students extensively.

NVC offers workshops for seven months so that any student, no matter their major, can participate and receive training in basic business-building skills.

"The students at CMU are primarily undergraduate students from across campus, so they may not have an understanding of any business principles," Zellner said. "We work with them and engage them with mentors and entrepreneurs in residence."

This is NVC's sixth year of competition, offering more than $80,000 worth of start-up capital for competitors to fund their business plans. That includes the top award of $30,000 for best overall, other awards worth $10,000, and more.

Judges and mentors are seasoned entrepreneurial veterans, able to evaluate and give advice because of their reputable backgrounds in the business world. Last year's entourage of judges included Kevin Cotter, who was a state representative at the time. This year's keynote speaker is from the Wall Street Journal.

Bruce Marble, executive director of the Isabella Bank Institute for Entrepreneurship, said the competition has grown with the business community. In 2013, the New Venture Competition was named "Education Program of the Year" by Automation Alley.

How NCV has grown

The first NVC pitch contest started small compared to recent years. It had fewer people, fewer awards, and judges were pulled mostly from the local Mount Pleasant area.

Now in its sixth year, Marble said more people attend NVC and judges come not only from high places in Michigan, but also from nationally recognized positions in the business world.

"The number of people coming to the event has grown dramatically over the last five years," Marble said. "There are probably 200 to 300 people that have participated: guests, judges, alumni, investors, state representatives associated with supporting start-up companies, faculty."

The number of awards have also increased, allowing more students to receive recognition and monetary aid for their business each year. More than $250,000 has been given out during the past four years to students who developed business plans and won awards.

Eventually NVC started inviting engineering students from Michigan Technological University. Marble said CMU invited Michigan Tech for their engineering skills, so that students from both universities would partner up and take on the competition together.

That turned out to not be the case.

"We thought they would bring engineering ideas and there would be partnering between CMU students and engineering students at Michigan Tech," Marble said. "It turns out, their teams tend to just be Michigan Tech students only."

Zellner said they have tried to improve on the program fore the benefit of the students that participate.

"Every year we try to improve the outcomes for the teams, make some adjustments," she said. "We have had over the last five years close to 400 people participate in the competition, and that includes judges, special guests."

Who deserves credit

New Venture would not be possible without the many people who put it on. Crespy said NVC has evolved into the successful program that it is because of key figures like Zellner and Marble.

Zellner was hired specifically for managing the contest each year, and Cespy said  listening to Jane Watkins and hiring Deb Zellner was one of the best decisions he ever made.

"CMU is blessed when people take an idea and make it transformational," he said. "Deb was invited to go to Grand Valley to explain how we did what we did--other universities go to Deb Zellner to learn how you build a successful New Venture Competition."