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Something Ventured, Plenty Gained

Competitions are offering BC students the opportunity to hone their entrepreneurial skills

CoReHUB, whose members are (L-R) BC seniors Matt Burke, Doug Bent, Gaetan Daphnis and Chris Castro, and Boston College High senior Emaad Ali, poses after winning the BC Venture Competition. (Photo from BCVC Facebook page)

By Sean Hennessey | Chronicle Staff

Published: Apr. 22, 2015

Spring is venture competition season at the Heights, a time when accomplished Boston College students demonstrate their ability to create viable entrepreneurial enterprises that can succeed in the real world.

This month has seen BC undergraduates and graduate students take part in the Boston College Venture Competition (BCVC), Social Entrepreneurs Envisioning Development (SEED) competition, an AARP Foundation competition and the BC School of Social Work Social Innovation Day [see separate story].

Taking part in these competitions help students appreciate the quality of leadership and the benefits of drawing on different sets of expertise, often through collaboration with different schools, say BC faculty and administrators.

“Entrepreneurs have to be good at a lot of things,” says Jere Doyle ‘87, executive director of the Carroll School’s Entrepreneurship Initiative. “They have to be good at business skills, at sales skills, at understanding people, and at networking. But to start with, they have to be good people. At the end of the day, most investors will tell you it’s all about the team, all about the person.

“Entrepreneurs are great leaders. BC is perfect for developing great entrepreneurs.”

The Carroll School’s ninth annual BCVC finals last week saw a record 38 teams, with CoReHUB – made up of Carroll School seniors Matt Burke and Gaetan Daphnis, College of Arts and Sciences seniors Chris Castro and Doug Bent and Emaad Ali, a Boston College High senior – taking the $20,000 first prize. The team’s business idea is to enable commercial real estate tenants to make better, faster decisions.

“Our goal is to give tenants the most comprehensive view of the market by connecting them to the best brokers and letting them search on their own,” says Burke, the CoReHUB CEO. “CoReHUB is all about empowering the end user to make a smarter choice about their next space. We will provide a comprehensive, accurate commercial real estate listing platform and offer a highly targeted tenant-broker matching service that gives tenants better options and reliable information.”

While the concept is scalable to other markets, according to the team, CoReHUB wants to focus on mastering Boston for the time being.

“Even though our idea is only seven weeks old, we will launch our minimal viable product within the next two months and tweak it based on our client’s needs and the feedback we get from our advisers,” says Castro, CoReHUB co-founder and president. “We will work on this full-time after graduation and continue to keep working hard to take our venture to the next level. Ideas are only commodities; execution is what polishes the diamond.”

Taking second place was Helpers, an application-based platform that matches tutors and students instantly, while third place went to 1950 Collective, which provides sleek and high quality fandom apparel.   

While more work is needed before the ideas are market-ready, these team members are more than willing to put in the “sweat equity” in continuing to test and refine their concepts. The quality of what was presented is another example of how successful companies – such as Wyn See, Jebitt, WePay, Drizly, NBD Nano – have originated from the BC campus.

“It’s much easier to start a company now,” says Doyle. “There are just so many more opportunities. What you’re seeing with BCVC is really the proliferation of what you’re seeing in the business world right now.”

An invaluable role in the student entrepreneurial growth has been the mentoring and judging by alumni representing a wide range of backgrounds. Doyle, for example, is an angel investor and serial entrepreneur who served as a sounding board for many of this year’s BCVC ideas.

“You’ve got 38 companies this year so you’re talking about 110 students or so that have really devised a great business plan. There’s no substitute for putting those kinds of things together and then getting up in front of seasoned venture capitalists – who act as judges –presenting the plan and getting really tough questions. These students do incredibly well at handling them.”

An offshoot of BCVC is SEED, the social initiative track of the venture competition that has enjoyed significant growth during its five years. The competition’s aim is involving students across campus in developing ideas for high-impact social ventures which either solve needs in a community or provide innovative solutions that are potentially scalable on a global level.

This year’s SEED competition saw a record 19 entries, with juniors Esme Condon (Carroll School), Lucas Allen (A&S) and Daniel Lundberg (Lynch School of Education) taking the top prize with their Include-Play-Learn, a financially sustainable center aimed at providing accessibility for children with disabilities while also reducing cultural stigmatization.

The project seeks to open the first accessible playground and inclusive library environment at the Epicentre educational facility in Ghana by August. Team members envision that revenue generated through the operation of after-school programs, book clubs, inclusive sports leagues, and playground activities will allow Include-Play-Learn to offer scholarships children with disabilities from low-income families.

"We also want to reduce the very intense stigmatization surrounding disability in our community and more broadly throughout Ghana through encouraging inclusive play and learning at the facility,” says Lundberg, currently in Ghana on a one-year leave-of-absence from BC working on disability rights and development, which will allow him to oversee the project.

Boston Foods, a market-based and self-sustaining hunger relief program, took second place; third place went to Noggin, a software application providing a mobile assistive communications solution to disabled individuals.  

“A lot of students at BC are very aware of needs in the community around us. They develop a deep sense of empathy through different volunteer work, opportunities and mission trips. That’s very valuable,” says Laura Foote, an adjunct lecturer in the Carroll School of Management and mentor in the SEED and AARP competitions.

With governments fiscally strapped and non-profits relying on donations that can’t always be counted on, Foote says sustainability is the key is helping solve problems.

“Students have started seeing social enterprise as a way to make a difference. Here you can get to the root cause, you can have an impact, but you can set it up in a way that’s financially sustainable.  That’s a worldwide movement and our students are interested in that.”

Foote notes that BC has been designated as an Ashoka Foundation Changemaker Campus, a global network of 30 leading universities committed to advancing social innovation on and off campus through interdisciplinary coursework, experiential learning, and student-led initiatives.

“That’s a pretty meaningful framework for a lot of what the undergraduates are interested in,” says Foote. “It relates to the role of BC as a place where students can learn to be changemakers.”

She points to the competition sponsored by the AARP Foundation, which aims to promote innovation focused on aiding low-income seniors. Taking a $5,000 prize was The Nutrition Network, a for-profit consulting group that provides evidence-based nutrition education for rural adults 50 and older that is implemented through community workshops and resource coordination. The team members are BCSSW students Katherine Raymond and Brooke Markt, Carroll School senior Hillary O’Toole and A&S senior Sarah Dalton.

“Here we had two social work students very interested in the needs of senior citizens, but they weren’t that experienced with the concept of a business venture, or how to pitch it,” says Foote. “And then there were two undergraduates who were more comfortable with the business end, but didn’t know a lot about the issue. However, together they were able to come up with something interesting.”

“We sought to take on this problem of rural senior food insecurity in a way that hadn’t been done before,” says Raymond, the Nutritional Network’s co-founder, who will work with Markt over the summer to bring the enterprise to life. “We chose this population because it’s difficult to reach and is not easily supported in the community.

“We are now planning on working with our networks to identify ways to make this enterprise something that happens. We’ve had a lot of support and advice throughout this process and are eager to get started on bringing this to life.”