Fowler Business Concept Challenge: Generating Ideas that Can Change the World

Fowler Business Concept Challenge: Generating Ideas that Can Change the World

Three months ago, Montreal’s Bria d’Amours and Haiti’s Carl Dumesle — two new international students in the University of San Diego's full-time MBA program — had a problem.

They couldn’t find local housing.

Fowler Biz Concept Challenge-2019

“I was excited to start my journey but experienced my first major hurdle before I even set foot on campus,” Dumesle said. “I could not find a place to live. Students who study away from home are forced to jump through endless hoops just to find a place in their new host city. It takes many of us several months and multiple application rejections before securing housing due to the lack of a credit score, co-signer or social security number. We are also victims of potential scams and security risks. The process of finding housing was very time consuming and created extra frustrations before I even took my first MBA class.”

On Nov. 15, a problem-solving idea generated by Dumesle and d’Amours resulted in an entrepreneurial victory. The inaugural $45,000 Fowler Business Concept Challenge (FBCC) hosted by the equally new Entrepreneurship and innovation Catalyzer in the USD School of Business awarded the duo’s idea, Housing for Undergraduates and Graduate Students (HUGS), as the top prize winner of $15,000 in scholarship money, both increasing awareness of the issue and working toward a solution.

Dumesle and d’Amours created HUGS to make finding housing for international and out-of-state undergraduate and graduate students easier. They applied to the FBCC in October and HUGS ultimately had the top idea among 16 FBCC semifinalists. While the money eases their student tuition burden, there were just as happy to see support for their idea grow and were thankful that the Catalyzer could support their efforts.

“After we’d gone through this problem, we realized there was a serious market gap and a need for a solution for international and out-of-state student housing,” d’Amours said. "The more we did the research, the more we realized how viable and scalable our idea really was. It just came to life.”

Catalyzer, Fowler Business Concept Challenge Emerge

Their idea was born about the same time that the USD School of Business launched the Entrepreneurship and Innovation Catalyzer. Associate Professor of Management Rangapriya “Priya” Kannan directs a resourceful team of faculty and staff who work to encourage entrepreneurial students. To coincide with its launch, a donation by Ron and Alexis Fowler created the Fowler Business Concept Challenge this fall, as an entry-level way to generate new ideas.

"This is about encouraging students to take a chance and put themselves out there," says former USD Board of Trustees Chair Ron Fowler of the FBCC. "If you have an idea and want to share it, you have an opportunity to share it with people who are CEOs and have significant positions in corporations within the San Diego community.”

Once the Catalyzer emerged and the FBCC was live, students noticed. With small fanfare, the Catalyzer received 90 entries less than two months into the fall semester representing each USD school on campus. In early November, the field was cut to the top 16. On the morning of Nov. 15, all 16 teams gave a full pitch to judges to pare down to a group of finalists.

Entrepreneurial Ideas Shine

The public portion of last Friday’s FBCC event enabled all 16 semifinalists to give a 60-second pitch to the KIPJ Theatre audience. $1,000 in prize money — in the form of scholarship dollars — went to 12 ideas and a $2,000 prize went to Mechanical Engineering student Dean Lockwood ’20, whose pitch for Mixed Earth Organic Recycling earned him the most engaging presenter award.

The top four ideas received $15,000 (HUGS: Dumesle and d’Amours, both '21 MBA, Mentor: Colin Campbell), $7,500 (Sunlight: Brittany Catton Kirk ‘20 MASI, Mentor: Abby Berk), $5,000 (Huzzle Up, Ann Marie Salottolo ‘20 Business Administration/Marketing, Mentor: Carlton O'Neal) and $3,500 (One of a Line, Natalia Ohanesian ’20 Communication Studies, Mentor: Deborah Kelly). These top four ideas examined international student housing; an organization dedicated to healing support for survivors of rape; improvements for the gig economy; and an online clothing subscription company.

Kirk, a 2005 USD undergrad alumna and current graduate student in the Kroc School's Master of Arts in Social Innovation, wore a bright yellow jacket during the FBCC. It drew attention to her and others in the audience who wore yellow to support her program, Sunlight Retreats for Survivors of Rape. Kirk is founder and executive director of the nonprofit organization.

To Kirk, earning $7,500 was helpful, but creating Sunlight to give healing support for both herself and countless other survivors was critically important.

“It's validating,” Kirk says of the support her idea got from the Catalyzer and Sunlight’s FBCC participation. “It's about being a voice for the voiceless. Many people can relate to this, but they’re not vocal. We’re all brave to be talking about this. By normalizing it among the USD community and the business community, survivors feel supported."

The inaugural FBCC offered much in terms of showcasing ideas that can make a difference in the world. The hope is for many more Changemaker entrepreneurs to emerge. 

“We want to thank the Catalyzer for organizing this,” Dumesle said. “A lot of ideas die in the early stages — you think about something, but then you don’t do anything about it. But this is a spark that a lot of people needed. To be able to bring it out of them and to get them in front of potential investors is pretty amazing.”

— Ryan T. Blystone

USD School of Business' Director of Marketing and Communications, Renata Ramirez, contributed to this story.

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