Putting their ideas to the test

Student entrepreneurs compete for startup capital at Anne Arundel Community College


It wasn't quite as dramatic as a boardroom meeting with The Donald on The Apprentice, but the third annual Business Plan Competition at Anne Arundel Community College still had its moments of excitement.

About 30 students submitted business plans, and a selection committee of six business leaders from the community winnowed the choices down to three. Those finalists were invited to present their plans to the judges: Michael Williams, senior vice president of BB&T, which sponsored the competition; Griff Hall, executive director of Leadership Anne Arundel; and Patricia Troy, president of FacetsWoman Inc., a Web-based organization for women. They listened to business pitches from two finalists who were competing for thousands of dollars in prize money.

While Donald Trump wasn't on hand to deliver his devastating exit line - "You're Fired!" - the tension was enough to force contestant Thomas Taylor to stop midway through his presentation to get his shaking under control.

Even Catherine Day, who won the $2,000 first prize for her photography business plan, received some criticism. She was told to think bigger.

A third contestant, Bonnie Natcher, didn't show up. She thought the contest was scheduled for 8 p.m. Wednesday instead of 8 a.m.

"It wasn't about the competition, it wasn't about the money," Natcher, who lives in Glen Burnie, said the next day. "It was about getting the idea out to those influential people who could someday make this a reality for me."

Natcher's business plan was for a gaming center in Glen Burnie, to be called For the Win, that would appeal to teens.

Carlene Cassidy, director of the school's Entrepreneurial Studies Institute, which runs the competition, asked the judges to review Natcher's plan and provide comments.

Natcher, 21, is a junior in the business administration program at Towson University, but qualified for the competition because she had attended AACC within the past year.

Day, an AACC student who lives in Pasadena, presented her plan for a photography business focused on black-and-white images of sailboats. In her 15-minute presentation, Day, who grew up in Ireland, explained that she had been sailing and taking photographs since she was very young.

"I sort of came at this that I love sailing, I understand boats," said Day, 34. She has already won competitions with her black-and-white photographs of nautical themes, and she has made money taking pictures of sailboats, weddings and pregnant women.

Her business plan called for buying a digital camera so she can sell more of her work to newspapers and magazines, establishing a Web site and getting more of her work into local galleries.

Williams predicted that Day's black-and-white photos would sell, but that the market would be limited.

When he announced that Day had won, he complimented her presentation, then said, "We believe that the plan lends itself to a little bit bigger version."

Taylor, 21, of Annapolis, is graduating from the community college this spring with degrees in small-business management, and hotel sales and marketing. He won $1,000 for his plan, partly developed during his classes, to open a pool hall that is family-friendly during the day and a bar at night.

One of his professors, Joyce Ezrow, said that though Taylor was nervous during the competition, he was eloquent and passionate while talking about the plan during class.

One thing that organizers realized was that students often don't focus enough on the hard numbers of a business. They prefer marketing and ideas to the task of listing the cost of supplies and projecting sales, Cassidy said.

Starting in the fall, she said, a class called "New Venture Planning" will be offered to give students concrete advice on turning ideas into businesses.

"It's always interesting to see," said Williams, in his second year as a judge. "It's a great opportunity to see what the entrepreneurs in the community are thinking about."

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