U of C entrepreneurs enter business models in competition at Northwestern

This Saturday, students will participate in Entrepreneur Idol, a competition where undergraduates trying to turn their ideas into functioning businesses vie for $25,000.

By Al Gaspari

Fourth-year Deborah Umunnabuike entered the business world early.

“In second grade, I made and sold best-friend necklaces to the entire second grade,” Umunnabuike said.

And that was just the beginning. This Saturday, she will compete along with eight other University teams in Entrepreneur Idol, a competition where undergraduates trying to turn their ideas into functioning businesses compete for $25,000.

“I think it is a great opportunity to talk to a lot of veterans of venture capitalism and get their suggestions,” she said.

Umunnabuike started an online clothing retail site, AvantGaudy.com, three years ago.

While Umunnabuike has managed to juggle her business and her studies, preparing for the upcoming competition has still been a challenge. The hardest part is the presentation portion, she said, where she’ll have to whittle down three years of experience into two and a half minutes.

“The pitch is being worked on,” she said. “I don’t think it will be ready until Saturday.”

But not all the contestants share Umunnabuike’s business experience. Third-year Sue Khim never envisioned herself as an entrepreneur.

“I did not have any interest in entrepreneurship. I want to be a doctor,” she said.

But then Khim noticed the loan fees banks charge, and wanted a better way to pay for higher education. She conceived Give Forward, a yet-to-be-created philanthropic website where donors could give money to students to pay off loans, who in turn promise to donate to charities.

She bounced her idea off of Gary Hoover, AB ’73, an entrepreneur involved in non-profits, who provided encouragement. She also met fourth-year Justin Savage, winner of the 2007 Entrepreneur Idol, who told her about the competition.

“I became more interested and ambitious. It all just converged at the same time,” she said.

Though admittedly inexperienced in business, she said her work in a lab thickened her skin.

“You must keep in mind that the first 300 times you do something, it might not work. I’ve gotten used to that—when you do something new it’s different than learning out of a book,” she said.

Though still committed to medicine, her passion for entrepreneurship has grown.

“Win or lose, I secretly harbor the intention to start [Give Forward],” she said.

Other entries include third-year Rona Hsu’s Timeslot, her idea for an online reservations service, and first-year David Akinin’s Soy Bean Joint, a potential Starbucks for the lactose-intolerant and health-conscious crowds.

Last year’s winner Savage is guiding the U of C effort. This year, he’s helping peers compete with students from other Chicago-area schools and also judging the competition.

Savage’s winning idea overhauled the software used in the cash register system at his local Subway. Now he is the CEO of Checksense.com, which manages payments online.

He credits his success to early lessons. He started his first business at age 15, offering technical support from icantgetonline.com.

He has tried to steer the teams away from common mistakes in the presentation, often repeating the same advice.

“For most business plan competitions, the plan has to be very big and the first steps must be very accessible. But it must be something small enough for you to start,” Savage said.

Seven other Chicago schools will be competing.