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NU students vie for $300K in business startup competition

A previous year's VentureCat final presentation.

It kind of sounds like baseball. There are “pitching coaches,” “slides,” and even a name which could be straight from the minor leagues: “VentureCat.”

But VentureCat at Northwestern University is anything but the minors for students looking to become entrepreneurs. It’s a competition for those who have created business start-ups and are striving toward the next step to success.

Sixty-five teams, the most since the program began in 2017, have been winnowed down to 25 semifinalists by judges with business expertise. After more rounds of presentations to the experts, winners will be announced May 26.

First place, $150,000. Other prize amounts go down from there, with a total of more than $300,000. The money helps student entrepreneurs grow their businesses. The contacts and connections they make during the competition may be worth more.

“It’s definitely a networking event,” says Jessa Fuller, VentureCat’s program lead at Northwestern.

Each team has just seven minutes to make its “pitch” to the judges. Presenters can use up to 20 slides for visuals.

That’s the easy part. Then, the judges ask questions. “The Q and A is rigorous. That’s where the students are put to the test,” Fuller explains.

Each team gets a “pitch coach” to help shape and polish the presentation. Linda Darragh, professor at NU’s Kellogg School of Management, is one of the coaches.

Darragh says a lot of students want to start a business, but it’s not for everyone.

“You need to have an entrepreneurial mindset,” she says. At the beginning of class each term, Darragh asks, “how many of you want to be entrepreneurs? 250 hands go up,” she says.

But then, Darragh continues with “how many of you have a compelling idea?”

The hands then become a handful.

“You have to see the opportunity,” Darragh says. “You can’t stop thinking about it. You have to go for it.”

Jacob Jordan is one of those going for it. Jordan is a graduate student in Public Policy and Administration. His idea, “The Equal Opportunity Book Box.”

His project, which is already up and selling as a small business, is a semifinalist in the Social Impact category (Other categories are Business Products and Services, Consumer Products and Services, Energy and Sustainability, and Life Sciences and Medical Innovations).

The “Box” contains three books, aimed at children ages 0-2, and 3-7. But unlike many other children’s volumes, these books all feature characters of color, are gay/lesbian/transgender, or have physical disabilities.

Jordan does not write the books. They are obtained from publishers. For every book sold, another is donated to a nonprofit which provides books to low income schools. Average “Box” price is $35.

“Every book doesn’t have to be about a social justice theme,” he says. Although some do cover justice or history in an age appropriate manner, many volumes “just include characters who are under-represented.”

Jordan was inspired by a class he took as an undergraduate at NU, called “Education and the Inheritance of Social Inequality.” Jordan says he learned that 77% of all children’s books only have characters that are white or are animals.

While at home during the COVID quarantine, Jordan (and his two team members) started marketing the “Box” via social media, and already have more than 700 subscribers.

Jordan says his goal is to pursue his “mission driven” business after graduation.

If things go well, Jordan might be someone that future VentureCat competitors look to for inspiration. Several alumni have gone on to create multi-million dollar businesses.

“We love to follow their success,” says Fuller. “They talk about VentureCat.”

VentureCat is a cooperative project of a variety of NU schools and institutes, including the Levy Institute for Entrepreneurial Practice and Lanny and Sharon Martin.

A live stream presentation of the winners starts at 7 p.m. on May 26. Registration to watch is required. Go to venturecat.northwestern.edu for details.

Jeff Hirsh

Jeff Hirsh joined the Evanston Now reporting team in 2020 after a 40-year award-winning career as a broadcast journalist in Cincinnati, Ohio.

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