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Means Center dedicated to help students get fledgling business ideas off the ground

StartUp Showcase Participants

Participants in the 2018 StartUp Showcase Competition.

The George R. and Martha Means Center for Entrepreneurial Studies at Illinois State University is dedicated to helping students get business ideas off the ground and, thanks to an alumni endowment, is equipped to provide financial assistance for young entrepreneurs.

The Center’s interim director, Professor Terry Lowe, shared there is a growing interest in envisioning, launching and growing small businesses.

“Young people are becoming very entrepreneurial,” he said. “There are a lot of surveys and studies that are done with high school students that include the question, ‘Do you see yourself in a corporate career, or do you see yourself someday owning or working with a small business?’ The numbers we are seeing are moving very, very heavily towards the latter. I saw one survey where 80 percent of high school seniors said, ‘I am going to end up in small business someday.’ So we know it’s moving in that direction, and we know younger people like to invent and create and design. I think that this is only going to grow, and the interest in entrepreneurial ventures, particularly among Generation Zs, is going to really explode in years to come.”

Although housed in the College of Business, the Means Center welcomes students from across the university.

“There are entrepreneurs in every college,” Lowe said. “(The Center’s) purpose as originally established was to assist students in the college to launch or accelerate a small business idea that they may have come up with. As the Center has grown and developed, we have reached out across campus to involve the entire university student community.”

As part of this mission, each November the Means Center hosts its annual StartUp Showcase. The competition is based on the format of the popular television show Shark Tank and gives students the opportunity to pitch their business proposal with the hopes of receiving financial backing.

“There are entrepreneurs in every college,” Lowe said. “(The Center’s) purpose as originally established was to assist students in the college to launch or accelerate a small business idea that they may have come up with.”

“Students can apply and enter this competition if they have a well-developed business idea or they’ve actually already started a little business,” explained Professor Lowe.

Following an application process, a group of finalists is selected to present their ideas for a panel of judges who then choose the top three or four entries to receive financial prize packages to further their entrepreneurial ideas.

In past years, competitors have proposed business plans for everything from bass fishing baits to unusually shaped candles. The ideas that took home top honors at the 2018 event included a subscription box company geared toward children with special needs, an affordable approach to addressing technology challenges and a custom cake design business.

Lowe noted several of the companies from past showcases continue to be successful even years later. For instance, a trio of students won the 2011 event with an idea for a textbook rental company. Their new business, Packback, later appeared on the televisions show Shark Tank and received backing from Mark Cuban.

In addition to StartUp Showcase, the Means Center operates an accelerator program, which allows ISU students from all across campus to apply for financial support for their entrepreneurial business ventures all through the year. It also offers mentoring opportunities and coaching for the process of growing a business from the idea stage to reality.

“There are  funds available for the students,” said Professor Lowe as he explained how he hopes to see the accelerator program grow in the coming years. “You don’t have to pay anything back. We do not require that students sign any kind of documents that say you must succeed or pay it back. Nothing like that. We give them the support with no strings. We just need to know that they’re really devoted to their idea and that they will attempt it keep it growing.”

Instead of cash payments, the accelerator program provides financial support by purchasing goods and services for student business ventures.

“We buy things for them or we pay bills for them,” Lowe said. “For example, if they need an attorney, we will pay the attorney to work with them. If they need an accountant, we will pay the accountant to work with them.”

He went on to describe how many colleges and universities across the country are hosting events similar to the StartUp Showcase. There are even private firms that contract with schools as vendors to help orchestrate such activities. The Means Center offers more than just a one night competition.

“We have a permanent home here, and we’re not just about an event or a few events. We’re here year-round,” said Professor Lowe, who also asks faculty members to spread the word about the opportunities available on campus for student entrepreneurs. “While you’re here as an ISU student,  any time you come up with an idea and get it a little further down the road, we’re willing to hear about it.”

Applications for the 2019 StartUp Showcase will be due in September, so the professor encourages Redbirds to begin working on ideas they can bring to the competition.

“We try to remind students in the spring semester to be thinking and maybe over the summer developing a little bit,” he said.

To learn more and explore options for student entrepreneurs, visit the Means Center website.

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