By Cynthia Armour
City on a Hill Press Reporter

“Wanna win $12,000?” was the catchphrase of the day last week at Lisa Donchak’s Quarry Plaza table. Donchak is one of eight student committee members responsible for organizing UC Santa Cruz’s first-ever Business Plan Competition (BPC).

The idea is simple: students form teams, develop their business ideas and compete for cash prizes. The first-prize team wins $12,000, the second-prize team is awarded $2,000, and $500 prizes are awarded to both the third-prize winner and People’s Choice award recipients. A total of $15,000 of prize money is up for grabs.

The competition, Donchak said, is “open to everybody, all majors, undergraduate, graduate … You don’t have to have an idea. Just come to a mixer and join a group.”

The teams are mentored by UCSC faculty as well as members from the regional business and technology community. These mentors provide feedback and a network of resources in order to construct commercially viable ideas and strategic plans.

Although the idea is new at UCSC, Eric Gonzalez, the competition mastermind and president of the University Economics Association (UEA), got the idea from similar competitions held at Stanford and Berkeley. Both schools’ BPCs were founded by students over 10 years ago —1999 for Berkeley and 1996 for Stanford — and have grown to enormous proportions. Last year’s competition at Berkeley received over 100 business plans, and Stanford awarded $50,000 in prize money.

The competition has three goals: to foster a culture of entrepreneurship in the UCSC community, to create lasting relationships between campus community and entrepreneurs, and to educate the student body about global entrepreneurship. The keywords, Gonzalez said, are “connection and collaboration, or technology and entrepreneurship.”

Considering that the competition is open to students in all majors and fields of study, as well as to recent graduates and undergraduates, Donchak stressed the fact that “we’re promoting the interdisciplinary approach to this competition.”

“We’re looking to provide students with an opportunity to network with the campus community and local entrepreneurs,” Gonzalez said at a press conference with Peter Koht, the economic development coordinator for the Development/Redevelopment Agency of Santa Cruz.

“My role is to strengthen the ties with the university,” Koht said. “After all, we have similar goals.”

Koht also emphasized the objective of connecting people. “For so long in Santa Cruz people have been working in parallel rather than together. … It’s nice to see ties between the city and the university materialize.”

As for expected participation turnout, Gonzalez is confident.

“I’m expecting about 15 to 20 teams [to participate] in the initial round. But based on student involvement I would not be surprised to see more than that,” Gonzalez said. “Fifty-seven people signed up to receive e-mails at our first mixer.”

Donchak’s enthusiasm is evident when she talks about the competition.

“It’s a completely student-run event,” she said, “so it’s outrageous that we have a $15,000 pot!”

The Economic Development/Redevelopment Agency of Santa Cruz is one of the main sponsors of the event, and Koht said that the city’s interest was to “support people with good ideas, [help] them get a permit, negotiate with a landlord,” all facilitating the first steps of a start-up business.

“Whether we’re in economic boom or bust,” Koht said, “it’s always a good investment to support entrepreneurship.”

The competition aims to foster a supportive and creative environment for ambitious students, with limitless possibilities. Students may come up with ideas “ranging from technology start-ups to really neat social entrepreneurships or new distribution systems,” Gonzalez said.

In 2006, the Kauffman Foundation recorded 353 business plan contests around the world. Now UCSC has joined the ranks, and thanks to a core group of motivated students and supportive faculty and community, the university is well on its way.

In regards to other the BPCs held in Stanford and Berkeley, Gonzalez said that “they’ve been extremely successful, and I’m hopeful that in the long run we will reach that level and go beyond them.”

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