As Navid Alipour spoke during “the Big Reveal,” AJ Agrawal said he was “doing the math” and Eghosa Aihie was thinking back to Spring Breaks past in which he did not go on vacation, but instead working on his business dream.
So around 9:30 p.m. on April 3 in the Joan B. Kroc Institute for Peace and Justice Theatre everything fell into place: Alumnify, a start-up alumni engagement company created by Agrawal, a 2013 University of San Diego alumnus (BBA, Finance) and Aihie, who graduates in May (BBA, Business Administration), was the biggest winner in the third annual $50,000 USD Venture Vetting (V2) Pitch Deck Competition.
Alipour, a 2003 USD alumnus (JD/MBA) and one of three judges, announced Alumnify had won $40,000 of the seed-funding $50,000 available prize money. The event, organized by V2 founder Michael Lawless and Entrepreneurship and Experiential Learning Coordinator Regina Bernal, awarded the highest amount ever given to a USD-organized entrepreneurship competition. Last year’s V2 winner, OnMyBlock.com, received $10,000. The Social Innovation Challenge winner in 2013 earned $15,000.
Hugs, handshakes, text messages and smiles greeted Agrawal and Aihie after the announcement. Alumnify, a location-based professional networking application that promotes stronger communication and connection between mutually interested alumni, delivered.
“This means everything to us,” said Agrawal, who gave a solid seven-minute pitch for Alumnify and, with Aihie, impressed investors in follow-up breakout sessions before the decision was made. “It’s a tremendous boost for our image and to have the investors’ team believe in us. This ($40,000) validates our idea. It helps put us on the map.”
Aihie said winning V2 was sweet redemption after two previous springs in which the duo’s entry didn’t qualify for the finalist stage. “It’s been a crazy experience, but the mentality we have is one of no fear. We always stay positive.”
Alumnify topped three other USD finalists who shared the remaining $10,000: Will Caldwell’s Rivolix, a mobile application designed to help realtors with word-of-mouth referral leads, earned $6,000; Alex Bellini’s FundPal, a solution for non-profit organizations to raise funds via Twitter, earned $3,000; Adam Furman’s TwoLikeYou, a private social platform that helps organizations engage and strengthen their communities by fostering connections, was awarded $1,000.
Alipour judged the USD track finalists alongside alumnus and Ultimate Gaming Co-Founder/Chairman Tom Breitling ‘91 (BA, Communications) and Allison Long Pettine with Crescent Ridge Partners Ventures.
In addition to V2’s growing monetary award — prize money has increased from $15,000 to $25,000 to now $50,000 — the program debuted a bi-national/Mexico entrepreneurial track with three finalists for the first time. Presenters from New Haus, My First Watch and Sweet Book appealed to a second group of angel investors with $50,000 in resources, such as professional consulting, at stake.
New Haus, an online rental collecting web platform for independent property owners in Mexico, earned the top award of $30,000 in consulting time and office space to grow the idea. My First Watch and Sweet Book, both focused on children — one a smartwatch for those ages 2-6 and the other an educational tool to promote creativity and health awareness — each received $10,000 in consulting time. Analytics Ventures, Angel Ventures Mexico and Ansir Innovation Center sponsored the services.
The three binational judges were Alberto Osio Hernandez (Osio Corp., director), Ricardo Dos Santos (Biological Dynamics, chief business officer) and Ramon Toledo (Busca Corp., president/CEO).
“The V2 competition was a great opportunity for us to be recognized as Mexican entrepreneurs and the mentorship and advice we received from the judges is very valuable,” said Enrique Guadarrama (pictured, at right), an undergraduate business administration major at Mexico’s CETYS University, who gave New Haus’ pitch.
There was a lot of value for USD and international student entrepreneurs throughout the night. V2 opened with a poster presentation networking reception so students, many just starting their ventures, could pitch their ideas. Among the companies were a clothing line (Freeligious), a Greek Life recruiting website (Greek Rush), healthy beverages (Juice on Tap), watches that support a lifestyle (Yes Man Watches) and an idea to help human relations departments effectively find top-tier prospects (Prospect).
Andy Laats, co-founder of Nixon, Inc., and a consistent supporter of USD’s entrepreneurial competitions as a judge, donor, angel investor and more, gave the keynote speech. He shared his entrepreneur journey, gave advice to a captive student-laden audience and provided optimism for those who see the risk in entrepreneurship and still keep at it.
“Starting a business is a dream … it’s as hard as it is rewarding. It will reveal your strengths and your weaknesses; it’s humbling and provides a great lesson in self-discovery,” he said.
Agrawal and Aihie are proof of having the desire to create something, experience growing pains and persevere. The basis for Alumnify was born through an initial idea called GreekPull. Agrawal and Aihie participated in the Velocity Accelerator program in Indiana with GreekPull as a way to keep Greek alumni connected after graduation. From there, they moved on to the T Minus 6 Accelerator at the University of South Carolina in Columbia, S.C. Alumnify focuses on the entire university alumni base. It has garnered interest from universities wanting to strengthen ties to their alumni.
“We learned how to make a business and we’re spreading it to a university market,” said Aihie about the accelerator experience. He also credited mentorship and advice from Carlton O’Neal, a visiting professor of marketing in USD’s School of Business Administration.
“He was relentless. He helped me see how to take what we were learning not just as something to memorize for a test, but how to really apply it to the start-up,” Aihie said.
Alumnify, through its experiences and now a $40,000 physical belief in its idea, gets it. New Haus and other entrepreneurs, they, too are better off after participating in V2. Building a business idea and accepting advice and feedback from judges helps strengthen their ideas and keeps them motivated to dream about their big day, too.
— Ryan T. Blystone