Encouraging Minority Entrepreneurship at Morehouse

Four years ago, a representative of an established business plan competition, the ORNL Global Venture Challenge, phoned Tiffany Bussey, founding director of the Morehouse College Entrepreneurship Center. The representative was looking for minority students with business plans.

As a leader among historically black colleges and universities — and famously the alma mater of Martin Luther King Jr. — Morehouse could help, Ms. Bussey said. But the phone call confirmed something she’d already suspected: minority students were not taking full advantage of undergraduate business plan competitions and the opportunities they present for mentorship, networking and financial reward.

She didn’t have the numbers, and it wasn’t clear that any agency, school or research firm had compiled them, but Ms. Bussey, co-founder of the Rogers Bussey management consultancy, believed that African-American and Hispanic students were not competing in established competitions in numbers that reflected the community’s growing interest in entrepreneurship. Recent studies by the Kauffman Foundation, for example, have found that American “blacks are about 50 percent more likely to engage in start-up activities than whites.”

Nonetheless, Ms. Bussey’s efforts to encourage submissions to the Global Venture Challenge and other competitions produced no takers. This was especially surprising given that Morehouse offered courses with internal competitions for grades or class credit; she knew her students had the skills. So why didn’t they want to compete? “I’d ask the question in classes,” she said. “But everyone looked back blank.”

The dean of business and economics at Morehouse, John Williams, theorized that minority students focused on résumé-building, not start-ups, because they hear more frequent success stories about minority “intrapreneurs,” activists and artists. “Entrepreneurs like Robert Johnson, the founder of BET, are less common,” he said, “You don’t see many traditional venture capitalists backing black and female entrepreneurs, yet, either.”

When Ms. Bussey pressed her students about their reluctance to compete, she learned that many had start-up ideas. Some students said they didn’t have the time or money to prepare for and travel to competitions. Others didn’t think they would be able to raise investment money and feared that entrepreneurship lacked financial security.

Next, Ms. Bussey started calling colleges with high-paying competitions to inquire how she could get African-American students from Morehouse involved. When many of the schools didn’t call back, she said, she decided to take the matter into her own hands. By the 2007-8 school year, she was organizing a Morehouse business plan competition.

She focused recruiting efforts within historically black colleges, Hispanic institutions, state and community colleges — though the competition was open to undergraduates from any accredited American school. She enlisted a consultant, Guy Madison, to solicit sponsorships.

“The level of detail and soundness in their plans pleasantly surprised me,” Ms. Bussey said.

The five finalist pitches were for: UltiNets, an I.T. and broadband services firm already in operation; Not Alone, a video production business that would work with religious groups to create socially positive, nonfiction films; Jhenés, a plus-sized answer to Victoria’s Secret; Yes You Can, a niche online community for social entrepreneurs; and Apex Plastics, a company with technology that helps plastics manufacturers speed production times while reducing environmental impact.

Now approaching its second year semi-finals, the Morehouse competition is accepting applications again. It has already obtained 48. It has also upped the total amount of cash it will give away to three winning teams — one energy, one clean tech, and one consumables or traditional business — to $20,000.

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