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January 23, 2012
By Claudene Wharton
Entrepreneur and Nevada alumnus Rick Sontag spoke to Nevada business students during the fall semester as part of Business Week. His gift of $1 million to the College of Business made possible the competition that bears his name.
The Sontag Entrepreneurship Award Competition is open to all University of Nevada, Reno students regardless of their declared major.
As students return to the University of Nevada, Reno campus for the spring semester this week, the opportunities of a new semester await them - new subjects, new ideas and new friends.
But this semester, for the first time, students will also have the opportunity to enter the Sontag Entrepreneurship Award Competition, which comes with a prize of about $50,000.
The competition was funded by a $1 million gift to the University from alumnus Rick Sontag in September. In giving the gift, he sought to encourage student entrepreneurship, stating, "I hope this encourages the entrepreneurial spirit in Nevada's students and drives them to want to succeed, no matter the cost. So many times, opportunities are sitting in front of us that only require the decision to do them."
So, Sontag, who purchased a small aviation components company when he was 36 and grew it into a worldwide leader in aviation technology before selling it to General Electric in 2002, requested his gift fund an endowment for an annual student competition that would encourage student entrepreneurship. The College of Business swung into action to establish a committee, guidelines and rules, and is now inviting students from across campus to participate in this inaugural year of the competition.
"This competition is open to students from all majors, and to both undergraduates and graduates, at the University" explained Greg Mosier, Dean of the College of Business. "We encourage students to reach out across disciplines and collaborate with each other to develop innovative business ideas that tap into our students' strengths and talents."
The first step is simple, he said, but the deadline is fast approaching. Students interested in competing must go online and fill out a short "Intent to Enter" form by 5 p.m., Feb. 10. Students can enter individually or in teams of up to six members, and teams must designate a team leader. Student teams may have an advisor or mentor, but are not required to do so.
"The vision for the Competition and Award is the development of both the next generation of entrepreneurs and new business ventures," Mosier, who is also Chair of the University's new Economic Development Task Force, said. "The University has the ability to enhance economic development in a variety of ways, and promoting student entrepreneurial efforts is just one way we aim to do that more in the coming years."
The University has seen increasing student interest in entrepreneurship, a phenomenon that is not unique to Nevada or the University. In a recent nationwide survey by the Kauffman Foundation, a research group focused on entrepreneurship, 54 percent of millennials (18- to 34-year-olds) said they wanted to start their own business or had already done so. And, 92 percent of respondents said they supported increased access to education and training needed to run a small business as a way to encourage people to become entrepreneurs.
"Students have recognized that there are fewer opportunities out there with established companies, and that sometimes, it didn't work out so well for their parents or grandparents who worked their whole lives for others," said Chris Howard, director of entrepreneurial initiatives at the University's College of Business. "Students are wanting to have more control over their own destinies."
To help answer the call for entrepreneurship education, the University's College of Business began offering a minor in entrepreneurship a few years ago, and it is open to students from any college or discipline. Students take courses such as New Venture Creation, Entrepreneurial Finance and Applied Entrepreneurship that provide tools they can use to start their own business, regardless of their field of study. Likewise, the student Entrepreneurship Club, though housed in the College of Business, is also open to students from across campus.
"It's a pretty diverse club," said club president Brett Schaffner, a senior majoring in Information Systems and International Business. "One of our vice presidents is a political science major, and we have students from engineering and other majors too."
The club meets weekly on Wednesdays at noon in the Ansari Business Building, Room 107. They have speakers from the community and the opportunity to get advice from faculty and community mentors for projects and competitions, such as the new Sontag Entrepreneurship Award Competition.
The final proposals in the Sontag Entrepreneurship Award Competition will be judged by the Board of Directors of the Nevada Capital Investment Corporation, a state-funded organization founded to spur capital investment and job creation in Nevada. Howard, who is also CEO and principal in Northstar Investors Inc., serves on the Board, which is chaired by State Treasurer Kate Marshall, and so was able to arrange the partnership.
"It was a great fit," he said. "Our students will get great input from very accomplished business people, and those on the board can learn about the top entrepreneurial ideas coming from students. We are always looking for ways to create collaborations that can benefit not only our students, but our community and state."
However, there's a lot of work to be done between now and when the finalists will be judged in May. After the 5 p.m., Feb. 10 deadline to submit the Intent-to-Enter form, students have until 5 p.m., March 19 to submit the preliminary overview of their business idea, which cannot exceed 10 pages and must include several specific elements. After the finalists are announced on March 30, they will have until 5 p.m., April 27 to submit their complete written business plans. Oral presentations by finalists will occur May 4, and the winner will be announced May 11, one week before Commencement.
Details on the competition, including deadlines, rules and judging criteria can be found at Sontag Entrepreneurship Competition. In addition, there will be two informational sessions held in the Student Lounge on the second floor of the Ansari Business Building, open to all University students:
It may all sound a bit daunting to students at first, but Dean Mosier encourages students to take the plunge.
"This is a real opportunity, there are real dollars at stake here, about $50,000 of them," he said. "And, more than that, it's an opportunity to get real-world, hands-on experience in creating an entrepreneurial concept, and then get feedback and mentoring from faculty and successful businesspeople."
Mosier also reminds students that they are allowed to enter both this competition and the long-running Donald W. Reynolds Governor's Cup, a similar competition that is open to students from all Nevada universities and colleges.
"The more efforts like this one that we can offer to students in our state, the better," he said. "We are just very grateful to Rick Sontag for his generous gift that gives our students another opportunity to learn and succeed."