Smith College entrepreneurs compete for $20,000 start-up funds in Draper Business Competition.

draperbusinesscompetitionNORTHAMPTON, Mass.— Like many entrepreneurs, Thealexa Becker identified a business idea that would make her life, and others’, easier.

As an airline customer, Becker would prefer to be able to stow her luggage and go sightseeing during extended layovers instead of remaining in the airport, babysitting her suitcases. Recognizing such services are not widely available, Becker hopes to establish a business of luggage-storage facilities outside of airports.

The Smith College senior enrolled in courses through the Center for Women & Financial Independence to learn how to research, write and pitch her business plan with an eye on vying for the first Draper Business Plan Competition, which offers three cash awards totaling $20,000.

Funded by a recent gift from Melissa Parker Draper ’77 and her husband, renowned Silicon Valley venture capitalist Tim Draper, the competition kicks off February 4. Students are already honing ideas to pitch to a panel of venture capitalist judges when it culminates on April 15.

Smith is among numerous liberal arts institutions to have initiated business plan competitions in recent years. Hamilton College and Colorado College are now in year three of similar competitions; Colby College, year two; and Sarah Lawrence College is developing its own contest.

“Entrepreneurship is grassroots economic development,” said Katherine Hammond, assistant director of the Center for Women & Financial Independence, which is organizing the Draper Competition. “Given the current economic climate around the world, this is something we should all be thinking about.”

And liberal arts students are well positioned to be entrepreneurs because innovation is about combining different disciplines, said Hammond.

The competition will include a series of noontime sessions offering instruction on how to assess business concepts, identify customers and competitors.

One step during the three-month intensive primer will be an event at which students will present a business idea as part of a 6-foot table display—a typical entrepreneurial process in the competition to attract investors.  At another point, students are invited to videotape their business pitch so that the ideas can be critiqued by alumnae, many of whom are themselves successful entrepreneurs.

Some student participants are already familiar to Hammond: an engineering student from Tunisia who is interested in developing a kit that teaches a user how to make a touch screen; a student from Afghanistan interested in facilitating the international sale of traditional handicrafts from her nation; and Thealexa Becker with her luggage storage plan.

“I thought you had to have this great breakthrough idea like Steve Jobs or Mark Zuckerman,” said Becker, of Cleveland, Ohio. “But you can always improve upon something.”

Becker has already begun researching her idea. She went on message boards and confirmed there was an interest in short-term luggage storage.  She calculated the startup cost for lockers and the number of years it would take to recoup those costs based on a conservative number of customers. And, she learned how to present her ideas.

“As a math and economics major, I’m key on lingo,” said Becker. “One of the critical things to learn is how to ask the questions that other people will ask and to speak in language that everyone will understand.”

As Hammond notes, the skills students will learn preparing and presenting their business plans are transferable no matter how big or small a business, whenever students embark on the plan. Even freelance writers and in-home music teachers need the skills to make a business profitable.

“We want to empower students with the tools to evaluate business opportunities to determine whether it is a viable idea,” said Hammond.  “If the light bulb goes on today, that’s great. If it goes on 20 years from now, that’s great, too.”

Smith College educates women of promise for lives of distinction. One of the largest women’s colleges in the United States, Smith enrolls 2,600 students from nearly every state and more than 60 other countries.

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