A year of adversity inspires business ideas at Ole Cup 2021
The eighth annual Ole Cup — St. Olaf College’s student entrepreneurial competition — took place virtually, with 11 student-led businesses competing for funding to help advance their startup.
Due to the online format, judges were able to participate from all across the U.S. and offer probing insight to help vet contestants and challenge them to think deeply about their ideas. Judges were both alumni and parent entrepreneurs, including Tia Schaffer ‘20, whose business Live Life Home Solutions has continued since her second place win at Ole Cup 2020.
The effects of the pandemic could be seen in more than just the online format of Ole Cup 2021, however, as many student entrepreneurs responded to current COVID-19 market challenges by creating business solutions.
Such was the case with the first-prize winner Aidan Schoff ‘21 presenting Gro-W-All, a space-saving hydroponics garden system for urban restaurants. Dine-in restaurants, with their small profit margins, are known to have suffered greatly during the pandemic. Due to the upfront cost of perishable food, there was little opportunity for these businesses to scale back and recover their costs, which caused many to abruptly close or stay open and suffer a high rate of infection among workers.
With their needs in mind, and relying on his past experience in hydroponics management, Schoff developed an innovative hydroponics system for urban restaurants. By using this vertical system, restaurants can produce fresh items in-house, harvest as needed, and keep the cost of those items low — his example was growing lettuce for just 10 cents.
Schoff’s development of the Gro-W-All was aided by the Piper Center for Vocation and Career through both one-on-one entrepreneurship counseling and funding. He received an Entrepreneurial Venture Concept Grant to build a working prototype of his system and estimates that with the right investment he could begin production later this fall. Schoff received $10,000 for his business at Ole Cup 2021, and Gro-W-All will advance to the Minnesota Cup thanks to the win at St. Olaf.
This year, for the first time, the Northfield Enterprise Center sponsored a $500 community prize that was awarded to Ole Cup participant Artistic Optimism, founded by Jocelyn Aguirre ‘22. This prize reflects the NEC’s commitment to growing the entrepreneurial ecosystem in Northfield, Minnesota, by connecting student and community entrepreneurs together, with resources to help them succeed.
Social justice and equity issues have been in the spotlight now more than ever during the pandemic, and Artistic Optimism “seeks to help aid disenfranchised communities through the selling of artwork.” This sentiment resonated deeply with many students’ desire to have their business uphold and reflect their personal values. Students pitched business ideas at this year’s Ole Cup that included supporting mental health with animals, creating new online tools for reflection versus consumption, and supporting Black women through jewelry sales.
“One of the most exciting trends this year was the number of ventures in the field of arts and humanities,” says Associate Director of Entrepreneurship and Outreach Margaret Bransford. “It is wonderful to see these students thinking big about scaling their art, and using their art to make a social as well as economic impact.”
Second-place winner Pageio, presented by Darlene Radichel ’23, offers an affordable solution for disabled readers so they can continue to enjoy printed books. Her design solves an issue not met by current assistive technology, and her goal is to begin beta testing with regional institutions later this year, using the $5,000 Ole Cup prize money for production costs.
“I’ve been working towards Pageio since my senior year of high school,” says Radichel. “I’m passionate about creating this product to not only help students achieve their academic goals, but to make print books accessible and easy to read for people with motor disabilities.”
“St. Olaf student entrepreneurs are unique in two ways,” Bransford says. “First, they are so creative and bring a breadth of ideas from many disciplines to the competition. Second, each venture — whether for-profit or non-profit — seeks to make a positive social impact on the world.”
This year the Best Social Venture award went to another hydroponics business:
Sakha Sive Hydroponics Africa. This for-profit, socially conscious business received $5,000 from Ole Cup 2021 to help stabilize food systems in Africa.
Sakha Sive “aims to resolve critical food shortages in the fruit and vegetable market segments by providing a stable and sustainable solution to a perennial social problem while generating the means for its own scale as a growth mechanism.”
In grappling with the climate crisis we must reimagine food production as we know it.Aidan Schoff ’21
“In grappling with the climate crisis we must reimagine food production as we know it,” Schoff said during his presentation of Gro-W-All. During his presentation of Sakha Sive, Sivuse Mbingo ‘21 agreed that climate change played a role in the development of his hydroponics business as well.
“As a consequence of climate change, economic instability, the limited availability of financing to scale operations, and political insecurity — finding a new way of feeding the over 1.2 billion people of Africa is a matter of urgency,” Mbingo says.
The three-person team of Sakha Sive, which includes Sinethemba Mathunjwa and Thabani Mamba, will go on to compete in the finals of Fowler Global Social Innovation Challenge this June.
This year marks the first time that St. Olaf will send its Best Social Venture winners to Fowler. After eight years hosting Ole Cup, the organizers in the Piper Center remain committed to student entrepreneurship and finding new opportunities and partnerships to advance them further. Leading up to the event, weekly entrepreneurship programs were offered to help develop ideas into scalable business models, and Bransford continues to support students as a dedicated entrepreneurship coach since joining the Piper Center in 2018.
The third-place winner, Joggr — a social running app founded by Soua Yang ‘23 and Abdou Ghanim ‘23 — won $3,000 at Ole Cup 2021. The Joggr app aims to gamify and add a social aspect to the individual sport of running.
“A lack of motivation has always been a problem,” Yang said during the presentation, “Especially now with COVID since we’re, now more than ever, disconnected from our family and friends.”
Out of adversity comes opportunity.Benjamin Franklin
“One of my favorite quotes says it all: ‘Out of adversity comes opportunity’ — Benjamin Franklin,” says Bransford. “Our students have taken a challenging year and have chosen to innovate and move the world forward, rather than retreat from the challenge.”
Oles found many opportunities to reflect on their experiences and observations during the pandemic and worked with the Piper Center to turn those kernels of inspiration into competitive business ideas. By working with students individually, Bransford helps introduce students to the foundations of entrepreneurship and tailors those principles to the student’s specific idea.
You can watch these creative minds take on creative challenges at Ole Cup 2021 in the video archive.