Budding Parkland entrepreneurs make pitches at first CobraVenture showcase

Budding Parkland entrepreneurs make pitches at first CobraVenture showcase

CHAMPAIGN — At last week's first-ever CobraVenture pitch showcase, nine Parkland College students presented their business plans in crisp five-minute speeches, answering questions about everything from potential competitors and profit margins.

But three months ago, these students started with little more than ideas.

"On that very first day, when we told everybody our ideas, I realized everybody had good ideas, I thought they were fine," said Preston Richardson, a business administration major from Rantoul. "But to what they blossomed to, watching everyone's presentations, it's night and day."

His idea developed into The Helping Hand, a service for hiring temporary workers for jobs such as yard work, grocery shopping and baby sitting.

"The information that we learned throughout this process has really made our ideas into something actually feasible," Richardson said.

The group has been meeting since January, with workshops on topics ranging from marketing to business law, said Unit 4-administrator-turned-motivational speaker Marc Changnon, the program's facilitator.

"We started in January with an onboarding process," he said. "And then followed that with seven workshops that they all attended. First was defining your business; then, what are you selling; who is your customer; developing a marketing plan; business law and personnel; financial management; and then, finally, the executive summary."

Local business leaders such as Don Elmore, the director of the local Small Business Development Center, and Betty Brennan, the founder of Taylor Studios, spoke to the students.

"We had people come in from all over the place who volunteered their time," Changnon said. "We had bankers who came in and talked about loans. We had people that came in and talked about all the law. We had an attorney spend an hour and a half. He says, 'I charge $300 an hour, but I'm giving you an hour and a half of my time to help you understand what a sole proprietor is, what a partnership is.'"

Nichole Pearson, a nursing major from Champaign whose business idea was to offer non-emergency health care transportation, said she found the workshops empowering.

"There was not a day that I didn't walk into class that people had smiles on their faces, where I was given encouragement, where I was told that you could do it, where I got to meet some people that would give me knowledge that you didn't have to pay for," Pearson said.

And Elizabeth Allen, from Mahomet, who wants to sell affordable vinyl records to indie musicians, said that more than any particular workshop, she was struck by hearing each other's stories.

"You can learn a lot of knowledge in your head about, this is how you run a business, this is how you do a contract, this is how you do payroll," she said. "But hearing somebody talk about the very beginning ... (how) they went and bought supplies from somebody who was trying to sell all their stuff after they liquidated their business. Those things are much harder to see from the outside of a business, and getting to see that from the inside is very inspiring and makes you believe you can do it, too, because you see yourself in them."

The workshops culminated in last week's pitch showcase, where the students made their pitches, and six judges evaluated them.

"It's amazing the diversity of ideas these folks have," said Joan Dixon, president of the Community Foundation of East Central Illinois and one of the judges. "I think every one of them could make a go of it if they continue along the path that they're working on."

The judges looked at their presentation skills, how clearly they presented the problem they were trying to solve, if they'd analyzed their competition and their financial modelling, Dixon said.

After some deliberation, Allen was named the winner, receiving $3,000 for her business.

"The young lady who won was probably number one on everybody's," Dixon said. "But after that, it could've been anybody. They all had strengths."

Called Central Illinois Vinyl, Allen plans to make lathe-cut vinyl records, which are cheaper than traditional pressed records when made in smaller quantities.

"I'm a musician, and through playing shows in this town and being part of this scene, I've identified this need," said Allen, who is in a band named Mermaid Heaven. "I've been networking and building rapport with other musicians and engineers, recording studios and record store owners in town. This is a service that many of them wish they had access to."

Vinyl records are typically created from a metal master pressed into vinyl, while a lathe-cut record is made by etching into the vinyl in real time.

Traditionally, "there's a big metal plate with the original master on it, and you press the vinyl into it, and that's how it's made, which is a very efficient and great method if you're doing over 300, but that initial master costs a lot of money to make," Allen said. "With a lathe-cut record ... it is etching out the music in real time, so each record takes the same amount of time that it would take to listen to the record."

She said her shop would be the only one in the region, with the nearest one she was aware of in Texas.

"There are pressing services in Chicago and Nashville, but they don't offer lathe-cut, so I'd pretty much have free reign over Illinois," Allen said.

With the prize money, Allen plans to buy the $2,000 lathe, cover $1,000 in legal fees and start the business.

"I was definitely surprised, but I'm also just really happy," Allen said. "I'm just happy."

The nine students were selected out of 21 students who applied last fall, said Stephanie Stuart, Parkland's vice president for communications.

A 20-person advisory committee selected the nine based on a variety of factors, she said.

"Certainly, the business idea, the completeness of their thoughts about their business and the concept in general, but also the willingness, the heart behind what they were wanting to do," she said.

The program was free for students, who also didn't earn credit for attending.

"We were concerned about" students dropping out of the program, Stuart said. "Would this be engaging enough for them? Are we designing it right?"

But the workshops had virtually perfect attendance.

"They've been really dedicated and come to every session unless it's like a compelling medical reason," Stuart said. "They didn't earn any credit to do it, they didn't know if they'd win $3,000. But they've done it because of their own determination."

The program was funded by the Parkland Foundation, Murray Wise Associates and a variety of other donors.

The program was part of the Parkland Entrepreneurial Network, which in the past has mostly been a speaker series, Stuart said.

"A number of entrepreneurs have been invited to campus in the last 10 years or so to speak about their career journeys," she said. "This is the first time we've done it as a cohort, where students are going together through a series of workshops."

The program will need funding to be brought back next year, but Stuart said they'd like to.

"We would like to start planning for next fall," she said. "We think the model itself has been really powerful for the students."

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