Guiding creative entrepreneurs to success for 10 years
Ten years ago, Skidmore College’s first entrepreneur in residence, Ken Freirich ’90, posed an impromptu challenge to students.
“‘You have 24 hours to come up with your best business idea or your dream job, and you have five minutes to present. You could do a PowerPoint, a song, a poem, a painting,’” Freirich, who started his first business as a sophomore at Skidmore, told students. Eighteen participated. “I was so moved by the amount of talent and creativity among students that I felt the need to provide an opportunity for them to continue to follow their passions and dreams.”
In a matter of months, the first official Kenneth A. Freirich Business Plan Competition began to take shape. Roy Rotheim, professor of economics at Skidmore, became the driving force behind coordinating the competition, and Freirich, who was running the patient engagement company Health Monitor Network, provided the funding.
Now in its 10th year, the “Shark Tank”-style competition is known as an unparalleled opportunity for aspiring entrepreneurs to acquire new skills and business savvy and to receive personalized mentorship from accomplished alums, parents and community members who have succeeded as entrepreneurs, executives, investors and marketers. The process gives Skidmore students the confidence and tools they need to “make things happen,” said Freirich, preparing them for whatever career path they choose.
Dylan Telano '23 presents his business idea to Ken Freirich and his colleagues at Health Monitor Network during a feedback session Jan. 15 as fellow participant Haja Bah '21 writes in her notebook.
Freirich recently decided to fund an endowment that will allow the competition to continue in perpetuity, pledging $500,000 toward the College’s goal of a $1 million fund.
“The Business Plan Competition over the past 10 years has exceeded all of my expectations,"
said Freirich. "While my initial goal was to provide a platform and support system
for students to foster creativity and entrepreneurship, the competition has turned
into something so much bigger. It’s been amazing to see its impact extend to alumni,
parents, faculty and the community at large. Former judges and mentors have shared
with me that the competition has had a profound, enduring effect on them.
“The reason I wanted to endow the competition is that I want every student who has ever dreamed about starting a business, regardless of economic background, to have the opportunity at Skidmore to participate in a world-class program that will empower them and inspire them to follow their dreams.”
Other alumni, parents and friends have also provided financial support to the competition over the years.
This year’s first-round presentations were held Feb. 21 on the second floor of Murray-Aikins Dining Hall, where each participant had seven minutes to pitch their business plan before a panel of accomplished alumni judges, followed by eight minutes of Q&A. Finalists were then chosen based on the quality of their business plan and its potential to be viable, and each judge selected a finalist to mentor for the remainder of the competition.
This year's finalists are Cyntia Ismael '22 with Ingles para todos, Colin Mahoney '21 with Turf Ads, four-time participant Izaak Cohen '20 with Z's, Novilhelha Moleni '22 and Ha Linh Nguyen with Natural Glow, Naira Abdula '20 with Edutrer, Abigail Kaplan '20 with TROT, Emily Egan '20 and Maya Ling '21 with Coven, Haja Bah '21 with Uman 4 Uman Salone and Dylan Telano '23 with Voyce.me.
A new panel of judges will pick this year’s winners.
The process begins each September with a call for entries and a series of business plan workshops and coaching sessions. Each participant or team works with a peer mentor, an alumni mentor and, new this year, a Saratoga mentor who has achieved success locally. The competition has become one of the best-funded contests among liberal arts colleges nationally, awarding annual cash prizes and business service awards valued at more than $50,000.
More than 400 students have entered the competition since 2010, and more than 60% of those participants have pursued majors in areas other than business or management. For-profit and nonprofit business plans are welcome.
Novilhelha Moleni '22 laughs as she interacts with business and marketing professionals at Health Monitor Network on Jan. 15.
The process has evolved over the past decade to include more practice sessions and outlets for support and feedback, and many of the mentorships established through the competition last beyond students’ time at Skidmore.
“It’s been really interesting to reflect on 10 years,” said Freirich. “We've had winners and participants who have continued in their businesses and are very successful today. … All have shared that the competition was a transformative experience for them and changed their lives and careers forever.”