In an effort to get an edge on new business ideas incubating outside of the traditional Silicon Valleys of the East and West Coasts, more venture capitalists, bankers and others looking to back entrepreneurs are taking a closer look at community colleges. Many community colleges have the infrastructure necessary to support entrepreneurs and are starting to do more with entrepreneurship by starting and growing business plan competitions, according to Cindy Nevels, CEO of CynthiaNevels.com, a business consulting firm. Nevels works with the National Association for Community College Entrepreneurship, a non-profit that encourages entrepreneurship and business plan competitions at community colleges nationwide.
For community colleges, there’s a great opportunity to partner with local banks, venture capitalists and other stakeholders to start business plan competitions and grow their entrepreneurship programs. To get a business plan competition off on the right foot, getting buy-in from community college executives is critical, says Nevels.
“You have to get buy-in from the top to filter down to get what you need to have in order to try something new, if starting a business plan competition is what you want to do,” she says. Establishing a time line around all the tasks involved in a new competition is key, Nevels adds. Reaching beyond the college to find partners to help sponsor the competition and get buzz going in the community around it is critical as well.
Local banks and credit unions can make for great partners and sponsors because they are required to spend dollars on community reinvestment projects. Business plan competitions are the perfect venue for a bank or credit union to use these funds, not only to boost their image in the community but also to have a chance to connect with budding entrepreneurs, she says.
It’s essential to have a schedule and plan in place before you start the ambitious process of launching a business plan competition. It takes time and effort to start a competition, find sponsors, raise money and market it to the college and the greater community.
“Before you start, think about your purpose,” she advises. “What are you going to do after the first competition? What are you trying to achieve? What are your goals for the contestants, both winners and losers? Because everyone has to get something out of this whether they win or not.”
Nevels urges plan organizers to be savvy about how they publicize their competitions and connect with stakeholders. Social media, including using videos, Twitter, Facebook and blogs are great free ways to get the word out about a new or continuing competition.
Finally, she urges community college — and other — organizers to aim for big prize pools. “You can’t have a viable business plan competition and give away $1,000. Many community colleges are scared of the financial commitment, but if they line up donors in advance and really sell what they can get out of sponsoring a competition and prizes, they can do it.”
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