Can a Business Plan Competition Pay for College and Launch Your Career?

Second year Harvard Business School student Kimball Thomas and his business partner Dave Smith had no idea they’d be in the baby merchandise business until they came up with the idea for, an online store that sells baby products to the people of Brazil. They thought their idea was so forward thinking that they entered their business plan in the Harvard Business School’s 15th Annual Business Plan Contest—and ended up tying for first place with Romish Badani and Derek Poppinga (also both Harvard Business School students) for their idea, the BOSS Medical Team, a company that creates a device used to improve the effectiveness of spinal fusion procedures.

Why would busy students take months out of their already jam-packed schedules to develop business plans that may or may not ever see the light day? Because A) There’s money in it, and B) It may turn into a ready-made job after graduation.

Cash for Ideas

Because self-employment is on the rise with each generation, more colleges are offering degree programs in entrepreneurship. And what better way to find your most talented students than to sniff them out with a business plan competition? From the student’s perspective, if you do well, not only are you guaranteed to grab the attention of a prestigious business school, but you also have the possibility of receiving a substantial cash prize AND the opportunity to turn your business plan into a business reality—many winners and runners-up receive financial backing to get their businesses off the ground.

According to (the go-to website for a list of reputable business plan competitions) these competitions offer bigger prize money every year. Grand prizes can range anywhere from $1,000 to $500,000, depending on the contest and the type of business that wins. Plus, you can submit your business plan to more than one competition, with the possibility of winning multiple prizes. For example, MIT student David Auerbach won both the $100,000 Grand Prize and the $5,000 Audience Choice Award at the MIT Entrepreneurship Competition for his business Sanergy, which creates sustainable hygienic solutions for slums in undeveloped countries. The Sanergy business plan also took first place at the Tufts $100K Business Plan Competition, The Walmart Better Living Competition, The Global Social Entrepreneurship Competition, and second place in the Global Social Venture Competition, all totaling $203,000 in prize money.

But is it Worth the Effort?

That’s not to say winning business plan competitions is easy. Students start developing their plans months in advance and spend many hours a week perfecting them. The competition is fierce in that each business plan works its way up a ladder by competing in rounds that eliminate businesses at each level until finally there is a winner. The judging panels are made up of business professionals that include people like MBA professors, venture capitalists, corporate executives, investors, bank executives, past winners, and of course, successful entrepreneurs. So each project is judged on many aspects.

But even if a business plan doesn’t win the top prizes there’s still a lot to be said for entering and surviving the first round of elimination. Having your business plan recognized by a prestigious competition is a resume builder (for both college and your career). MBA schools love to see business plan competitions on grad school applications, as it shows the applicant is innovative, creative, competitive, and a critical thinker—all attributes business schools like in their students.

Who Can Compete?

Many colleges offer their own business plan competitions, however, there are also some great competitions sponsored outside academia, such as the Social Impact Business Competition, which awards up to $100,000 in prize money and consulting services. In most cases, any student can enter a business plan competition, even if they don’t go to the school that sponsors the competition. By keeping it open to anyone business schools can find talented students, and possibly offer winners incentives to come to their school.

With college and graduate school tuition going up while salaries and employment go down, you have to be creative in finding ways to cover the cost of higher education. Online education is a great alternative, because you can work more than if you physically went to school, however ground-breaking new options like business plan competitions are also something you might want to consider. But no matter how you plan to make it through school, you’re going to work hard while in college. So you might as well work on something that could possibly launch your post-college career—like an award-winning business plan for a business you’ve always dreamed of running.

Have you ever entered a business plan competition? If so, which one and what was your experience. Post a comment. We’d love to hear about it.

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