The annual Empower Your Dreams entrepreneurship competition was held on May 11. The competitors showcased their products or services.
Jason Scott Earl, academic director of the Willes Center and professor in entrepreneurship, said, “Here at the center, we teach that if you don’t build your own dreams, then someone is going to hire you to build theirs. So this really is the students’ chance to focus on something that they really want to do in the future. It could be a crazy idea, it could be a new product or service, or it could be something they want to take back home and do.”
Those ideas are presented to a panel of judges who then give their feedback on the product or service. Students have the opportunity to win some prize money as seed capital to help them grow their businesses.
There were four categories to enter: domestic, international, social, and community. For the first three, awards were given to the top three winners: $1,000 for third place, $3,000 for second, and $5,000 for first.
Over 100 submissions were narrowed down to 20 different participant companies to become finalists for the competition. There were up to four students per company. In this process, Earl said, “We made sure the students were actually eligible. We then had a group of external judges, not from BYUH, identify those who would be competing. Now we have off-island judges here to see the final presentations.” The judges came from all over the United States and Ireland for the competition.
“After we had the semi-finalists identified, we assigned mentors. Each one has at least one mentor who can help them. This is an important part when it gets to the finalists because we want to make sure that the judges are completely unbiased. We try to give them as much help on the mentoring side and then we turn it over to the final judges. We [the professors] have no say in who wins. We had 40 really solid ideas and we had to weed them out. It’s just the time–we can’t fit them all in one day. It had to be 20.”
Richie Norton, instructor and managing coordinator for the center for entrepreneurship, said, “These students have been preparing either this whole semester or since last semester with the Great Ideas competition. The students here today went through a real refining process to get to where they are. These students have worked really hard and they really believe in their ideas. Yes they’re here to win, but I believe that even if they don’t win, they’re planning on making it happen anyways because they believe in it so much,” Norton explained as he looked over the students’ booths at the HGB on the first day of the competition.
“I don’t think they’re gonna take the money and run to spend it at Foodland… I really think they’re going to use it on their business. Their businesses aren’t really just to make money… a lot of them have something to do with some kind of social good, which we call social entrepreneurship. It’s how to take your business skills to solve social ills. You’ll see that as a theme with a lot of them.
“They’re not money hungry, but they want to do something meaningful as well,” said Norton.
“That brings it home to the McKay vision, to influence the world for good, to establish peace internationally. And the cool thing about this business plan competition is they’re doing it right now. It’s not like, ‘Oh when I graduate,’ it’s now. They’ve been inspired now and they’re doing it. So they’re really fulfilling that mission in a real way,” Norton said expressing pride for the students.
Derek Miner, cofounder and president at Tech Prep Academy and one of the judges, said, “All of the presenters and all of the presentations were extraordinary and so thoughtful. [Choosing the winners] was one of the hardest things I think we’ve ever had to do. We wanted all of them to win, but there are many who didn’t win that I think will go on and do great things which is awesome, and that’s what happens a lot of times in life.”
Miner said it was amazing to see so many international students participating. “What’s so meaningful for me is to see students from all across the world who know and have lived and grown up in their own context and their own culture knowing better than any of us what types of problems need to be solved there locally,” he said.
One of the competition judges, Mala Grewal, founder and CEO at Talent Catalyst, said she could tell the students really wanted to win. “I was really, really impressed with how creative all the projects were. [BYUH] just strikes me as a very creative place and there’s a celebration for creation here. The competition was amazing. Ideas were really pretty solid,” she said.
Grewal said she and the other judges had a difficult time deciding the winners. “I went to BYU and I wish we had something like this.
“Kids from BYUH come from so many different countries and for a lot of them it’s their first shot at going to school and getting a degree, and they want to gain something here that they are going to take back and contribute into their places of birth and their countries of origin and that to me, is what it’s about.”
Business is learning how to sell yourself and how entrepreneurship is the future, said Grewal.
“Entrepreneurship is the key to being independent. The principles of business can help you scale any idea and bring it to more people other than yourself. If you’re always dependent on someone or something, you’re limited on what you can do. If you want independence in your life… like millennials do, learning the principles of business is everything. Being an entrepreneur is being free, but it is really, really hard.”
Earl explained, “If you look at the target area for this school, it’s Asia Pacific, India, China, and the Pacific Rim. That’s where two-thirds of the world’s population is, but only 1 percent of the church’s population.” Earl said a lot of these students go back home to create the future of the church.
“This is where the future leaders are and it’s really not just about who has the best business idea in this competition. I think this is really about giving students confidence in the skills to go back home and be successful, create jobs, and really just change the world in a very meaningful way. And I can’t think of a better thing that we could be doing here at BYU Hawaii.”
Norton added an invitation to all students to take entrepreneurship classes. “Whether you get a job or have your own business, it’s important to understand the skills of how to create income to protect your family in case of a crazy economic downturn or something happening in your business.”
He explained if students can learn how the money is created, they have the opportunity to better lives.