Ole Cup participant Olacoral: One year later
When the pandemic hit in 2020, one of the first events to successfully pivot from being in-person to fully online was Ole Cup.
Held on April 25, 2020, just four weeks after online classes began, this annual pitch competition for student entrepreneurs — hosted by the St. Olaf Piper Center for Vocation and Career — was able to creatively leverage online resources and continue, more or less, as planned. Cash prizes were awarded to student businesses for first, second, and third place, and $5,000 was awarded for the Best Social Venture.
We caught up with the masterminds of last year’s Best Social Venture, Olacoral, which began as a jewelry business and now operates as a sustainable seafood supply chain to disrupt the commercial fishing industry and protect coral reefs.
Olacoral was presented at the seventh annual Ole Cup by Michael Paredes ’22 and includes business partner, alumnus, and past Ole Cup winner Anthony Valiulis ’19 who founded DaVinci Industries and the Acutrack to provide a solution for electronic inventory management.
What inspired your business Olacoral?
Anthony: Around five years ago I went to visit Belize and got to see the problems happening with lionfish and was noticing the lack of a market-based solution for lionfish in Belize. So, with the way that COVID-19 was changing the world, I wanted to help make a difference in a positive way. I have always been passionate about the ocean and thought this could be my way to give back.
Michael: Olacoral was inspired by the innovative artisans in southern Belize who have been trying to tackle the lionfish invasion by creating jewelry from lionfish fins. These artisans have perfected the transformation of an invasion into an opportunity, yet they lack the market and the scale to make a meaningful difference on Caribbean lionfish populations. This is where Olacoral sees an opportunity to work with existing talent, and to bridge resources into a successful venture.
What motivates you to continue pursuing your venture?
Michael: I’m personally motivated by the impact that I see Olacoral having, and by the awareness we are creating for lionfish products. Olacoral has begun to have a tangible impact on the reef by removing hundreds of lionfish per week, which is creating employment and building skills in local fishermen. Most of all, the removal of lionfish allows the coral reefs (responsible for 50 percent of the world’s oxygen and a quarter of all marine species) a chance to thrive. By working on this venture, I am raising awareness of the lionfish problem, which I hope will lead to a change in the perception of lionfish so that more people recognize it as a sustainable seafood.
Name an outcome of pitching Olacoral at Ole Cup.
Michael: Thanks to pitching at Ole Cup, Olacoral was able to gain the capital needed to approach partners in Belize and begin production on our first set of inventory. This eventually led us to change our business model, from being a jewelry company and into a seafood company. We realized we needed this change after discovering that the lionfish removal rate on jewelry is far lower than what is needed to help combat the lionfish invasion. While the change was a drastic transition from our original idea, I think it highlights the opportunity to innovate and improve that is provided by the Ole Cup.
Anthony: Olacoral became a part of a larger company called Agricycle and it was thanks to the Ole Cup that we were able to make that happen.
How did your experience at St. Olaf prepare you to think like an entrepreneur and business owner?
Anthony: St. Olaf really prepared me for being an entrepreneur by teaching a lot of soft skills I still use today such as how to critically think through problems, time management (which is extremely important in the entrepreneurial space), and how to present an idea in a compelling way. Most importantly, though, it introduced me to some amazing businessmen and women who have helped guide me in my entrepreneurial experience.
Michael: During my time at St. Olaf, I have been fortunate to participate in countless opportunities that have helped me develop as an entrepreneur and a business owner. I’d like to name the Hult Prize on-campus competition, which is where I created my first business, Foodle, and also where I met one of my current co-founders at Olacoral. The Hult Prize is an annual competition that challenges students to solve pressing global issues in the pursuit of a $1 million dollar investment. The Hult Prize was a great next step after bringing my first venture to Ole Cup, and it was where I got my first experience leading a business in the “real world.” Challenges such as customer acquisition, product-market fit, and last-mile delivery were all faced at this step in my journey, but with the help I received at St. Olaf, I was able to become a semi-finalist in the 2019 challenge. I could not have achieved that experience without the help of St. Olaf resources like the Piper Center, entrepreneurship coaching by [Piper Center staff member] Margaret Bransford, and my advisors from the St. Olaf community.
What do you want the St. Olaf community to know about Ole Cup?
Anthony: I encourage anyone who has an idea to present it at Ole Cup if you have a chance. Also, if you do participate in Ole Cup, don’t think of it as a project or product. Think of it as a business. With that, put the time required that goes into running a business as well.
Michael: To pitch at this event is to seize an opportunity to create the future you’d like to live in. Every contestant in the Ole Cup is given personalized training and support in the weeks leading up to the pitch, which helps them not only develop their business but also their personal and professional skills. Ole Cup contestants are urged to continue working on their venture, and pitching at the event often leads to lifelong connections, regardless of the outcome. There is only upside in a decision to participate!
What is your ultimate goal for Olacoral? Or others in the future?
Anthony: The ultimate goal for Olacoral is to grow it into a major supply chain company for ocean-based invasive species and take on brands that want to work with invasive species in unique and amazing ways.
Michael: My ultimate goal for Olacoral is to become Belize’s leading seafood company and give coral reefs the support they need to survive for the next generation. I hope that others in the future see the value in sustainable entrepreneurship, and that the idea of solving problems with business becomes much more common.
What are you doing today that relates to your small business?
Michael: Today, I am focusing on scaling Olacoral into the leading lionfish supply chain. I have recently been forming partnerships with key stakeholders in Belize, and this has given Olacoral the opportunity to provide lionfish in quantities demanded by the market. I have also never stopped learning, and continue to develop new skills while facing challenges every day in this journey.
Anthony: I am still running both of these businesses. For Olacoral we currently have close to $1 million in preorders for this year and for DaVinci we are finishing development on the technology around Acutrack.
What’s one thing you hope people take away from your entrepreneurship story?
Anthony: That being an entrepreneur is not about having a good idea — it is about acting on the idea and making it into a business. Being an entrepreneur is not what you do. It is a mindset of wanting to make a change in the world and having the independence to do that.