Academics and Research / Magazine Feature

DU students take on the (business) world

Nobody told Nichole Parker and Jake Sager some challenges are just too big to take on in their first year of college, so they set their sights high.

The two first-year DU students — both 19 years old — came up with a business plan to elevate rural residents of Tanzania out of poverty. They entered their plan into a University of Colorado-Denver business competition and wound up in the finals on June 10, up against five teams of experienced business professionals.

While they didn’t win the grand prize, the pair — who drafted a business plan after reading a book on how to write a business plan — walked away from the Bard Center for Entrepreneurship Business Plan Competition with $2,000 in prize money, some important contacts and the determination to set their plan in motion.

For a couple of first-year students, the competition was tough: an established pharmaceutical company looking for capital for an anti-autoimmune drug; a solar energy company looking to place industrial power generation atop commercial buildings; a biomedical device developer with a tool to clear airways; an established flavored nut company; and a company that makes frozen, organic dinners for busy families.

They never thought about competing, they said. They just wanted to make a difference in the world.

“We were at a conference in February for sustainable business, and we started talking about doing something as a project,” Parker said. “Some of the others who talked about it felt it was too much, that we couldn’t do it, but we really wanted to try something.”

Sager, who has traveled twice from his suburban Minneapolis home to Tanzania on church trips and is familiar with the poverty that grips the countryside away from the urban core, said he had built some contacts with coffee farmers and was passionate about doing something to help.

Sager is majoring in international business while Parker, from unincorporated Arapahoe County, is majoring in accounting and Spanish. But both are seeking a minor in leadership through DU’s Pioneer Leadership Program, so they live in a community of like-minded students and attended the winter conference on social responsibility together.

“It doesn’t matter what your major is, the leadership minor reaches a wide variety of students,” explained Linda Olson, who directs the Pioneer Leadership Program. “As a group, there’s already a mindset towards social responsibility, so they are always thinking along those lines, of making a difference in the world.”

Olson said after returning from the winter conference, Parker and Sager continued to develop the idea of using a non-profit business model to help coffee farmers and artisans from Tanzania market their wares in the United States.

“That was the big thing: They were very persistent,” she said. “It just came from that energy of wanting to do something, not just talking about doing something.”

The students said the mentorship of entrepreneur Craig Harrison (BSBA ’03) helped them move ahead and overcome obstacles.

“He was always there,” Sager said. “He would challenge us and give us feedback and help us think of the next thing. We really had so much support.”

On hand for their big day in front of a ballroom packed with business leaders at the awards luncheon was Daniels College of Business Dean Christine Riordan, who said the two students exemplify values DU and Daniels strive to instill in students.

“We have that strong background in entrepreneurship and innovation, with a real commitment to social responsibility through entrepreneurship,” Riordan said. “With their dedication to public service, they took that to the next level.”

The students say they’ll continue to work on their plan and seek grant funding and more business plan competitions to raise the capital they’ll need to press forward. By winter break, the two hope to travel to Tanzania to strengthen ties with local contacts and move closer to making a difference in the lives of the rural poor.

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