Clarion University students Samantha Schlak of Fairfield, Nick Howard of Venus, and Taylor Mahan of Chagrin Falls, Ohio, won business startup funds in the 2019-2020 State System Startup Challenge finals April 22. This year’s finals were held virtually via the Zoom platform.
Formerly known as the Business Plan Competition, the challenge welcomes individual students or teams from the 14 Pennsylvania's State System of Higher Education universities to submit plans to launch or grow their own businesses. Prizes are $10,000 for first place, $5,000 for second place, $2,500 for third place, $1,000 for second place, and $500 for fifth place. Historically, only three prizes were awarded. Modifications to this year's competition allowed for the top five student teams to win seed money to start or grow their business.
Schlak, a 2019 graduate with a bachelor's degree in accounting and corporate finance, placed third with her business model for The Sassy Girl Project, receiving $2,500. The Sassy Girl Project helps women find and pursue their passions by providing tools that help them dig deep, feel supported and be more efficient. In the initial phases, the business has a line of merchandise, a website, a presence on social media, email and a blog. Schlak will use the prize money to expand her business by offering 'plurnals', a hybrid planner and journal designed for motivation and goal setting. She was also a finalist in last year's competition.
Howard, a junior accounting major, submitted his business model for Nick's Buffalo Chicken Dip. Nick placed fifth in the competition, receiving $500 to be used as seed money. Nick's Buffalo Chicken Dip will be a pre-made dip that consumers can purchase and heat up in their microwave or oven. Howard plans to sell this product to both the retail and wholesale markets.
Mahan, a senior accounting major, placed as a semi-finalist with her submission of TNT Silicon. She gave a one-minute pitch for viewer's choice and won first place, receiving $350. TNT Silicon will manufacture and install solar awnings to both the commercial and residential markets. The product will help to reduce fossil fuel usage while saving the customer money on their electric bill. She was also a semi-finalist in last year's competition.
A total of 85 student teams submitted a one-minute pitch in the fall 2019 semester to register for the competition. These pitches were reviewed and judged by PASSHE alumni, which resulted in over 50 student teams advancing in the competition. Of these student teams, 37 submitted a business model canvas in February 2020. These business models were reviewed and judged by non-PASSHE Small Business Development Center consultants. This round of judging determined the top 15 student teams that would participate in the final event held on April 22. Teams ranking one through five presented a live, five-minute pitch to a panel of external judges. Teams six through 15 presented a live one-minute pitch to the general Zoom audience for a chance to win one of two prizes for viewer's choice - $350 for first place and $150 for second place.
Clarion participants were introduced to Small Business Development Center services through direct interaction with Clarion University SBDC consultants and student interns. This resulted in the consultation and guidance throughout the various stages of the competition, including target market identification, industry research and financial considerations. Tracy Reinsel, coordinator of the Entrepreneurial Leadership Center, and Cindy Nellis, director of the Clarion University SBDC, served in this capacity.
Clarion University students consistently perform well in the competition. In the 2017-18 competition, Logan Chernicky ('18) of Clarion won $10,000 in first place for his business, Enhanced Visual, which focuses on integrating and developing unmanned aerial systems. In the 2015-16 competition, Bri Nellis ('16) of Clarion won $5,000 in second place for her business, Bri Nellis Photography.
Funding for the program and awards were made possible through support from the Pennsylvania State Employees Credit Union, Pennsylvania's State System of Higher Education Foundation, Hershey Entertainment and Resorts, and East Stroudsburg University Center of Research and Economic Development. A total of $19,000 was awarded to the top five teams to be used for initiation and/or expansion of their entrepreneurial ventures