Several years ago, a group from the Front Royal-Warren County Chamber of Commerce Small Business Committee heard about the Entrepreneur Café competition in Shepherdstown WV at the University there. They attended one competition, and took note of the format and competitors for what became a ~$800 purse award.
The Café was held in a classroom at Shepherdstown University. There were five competitors: a baker who wanted to open a Main Street Bakery’ a musician, who wanted to produce a children’s CD about bullying; a tour-guide who wanted to produce a tour and brochure on mineral mines in the area; a photographer, who wanted to open a studio; and a farmer, who wanted to build a walk-in cooler to store fresh vegetables that were later delivered to a Co-Op member base.
Each competitor was encouraged to bring friends to the competition. There was a $10 entry fee for attendees as well as sponsorships and in-kind donations for the winner. The presentation room was packed! Each competitor was given 5 minutes to make a presentation with PowerPoint and 5 minutes to take questions from the audience. At the end, the audience voted for the favorite – and the winner’s prize was awarded.
The Front Royal Entrepreneur Café Background:
In 2013, the first Front Royal Chamber “Entrepreneur Café” was organized, based upon the Shepherdstown model. A logo was designed; a Facebook page was developed; promotions began; 3 sessions of guidance for presenting were offered.
There were five competitors: a travel agent seeking to expand her business; a nurse seeking to provide birth control education for teens and pre-teens; a newly emerging auctioneer seeking to purchase PA equipment; an Origami Owl designer seeking to launch and market her business. The Café was held in a small meeting room, and there were about 50 people in attendance. Dr. Miles Davis, Dean of the Byrd School of Business at Shenandoah University, opened the event with a keynote speech. The audience voted, and the Auctioneer won the top prize – which consisted of $500 in cash, $1000 of free advertising through Northern Virginia Daily, one year’s membership to the Chamber of Commerce and a $1,000 marketing development package.
In 2014, the second Café was organized in the same format. We had five competitors: a multi-parcel cross-body bag designer; an Origami Crane designer who was putting together a book of world-travels promoting her Cranes for Peace project; an artist who had opened a Studio for lease to conduct classes in everything from oil painting to crochet to classes in social media – seeking to purchase a big flat screen TV to aid in classroom presentations; a caterer seeking to broaden her customer base; and a specialized logo-to-cookie baker seeking to broaden her customer base.
The artist, Kelly Walker of The Studio, A Place for Learning, won the prize. The Northern Virginia Daily published a great article about the event, and many local professionals were excited about the program.
Regional Program and Current Partnership with the Laurel Ridge Small Business Development Center:
Several members of the Chamber’s Small Business Committee felt that the potential to grow this event into a regional opportunity was clear. The LFSBDC had worked on organizing a similar event, Sharks in the Valley, designed to attract entrepreneurs that might need guidance in any number of business development disciplines and to administer that guidance prior to a formal competition. The LFSBDC had difficulty finding sponsors to support the initiative, and it never launched.
In 2015, the two groups met to discuss the development of a Regional Entrepreneur Café based upon the modest success of the Front Royal model and the goals and objectives of the LFSBDC’s Sharks in the Valley project. In April 2016, the combined groups and community partners orchestrated the first regional entrepreneurial competition and it was met with resounding success. The Advisory Committee generated a lead sponsor, Bright Box, and many other generous sponsors joined the initiative and agreed to serve as judges throughout the program of work. There were eighteen entrepreneurs from all over the Northern Shenandoah Valley region who participated in 6 classroom sessions designed to instruct on finance, branding, marketing, business plan development, creating an effective pitch presentation, etc. They went into semi-finals, and eventually final competition.
The winner was Bill Long of Auto Care Clinic in Warren County Virginia. He needed the award money to purchase automotive lifts for his upcoming expansion. He was awarded a prize package valued at about $8,500 in cash, advertising and other in-kind services. The Advisors and Community Partners have heard nothing but excellent reviews of the program and the competition event itself.
Now, we prepare to launch the second event of its kind with a few new changes and upgrades to the program: the Laurel Ridge Small Business Development Center, under the direction of Christine Kriz, has agreed to serve as the Lead Agency in the program; in response to this evolution, we have decided to rename and rebrand the program “RISE,” or Regional Initiative Supporting Entrepreneurship, Shenandoah Valley; and we have begun to enhance the educational component program of work moving into the 2017 competition.
RISE hopes to discover many emerging and existing entrepreneurs in the Northern Shenandoah Valley region that are looking for guidance and help growing their businesses; to provide a forum for networking and healthy competition; to provide a substantial purse as seed money; and ultimately to create a supportive, nurturing environment in the region for entrepreneurial growth and sustainability.