Two teams share first in business plan competition

Gift Ntuli ’14 and Joe Tagliente ’13 tied for first in the Third Annual Entrepreneurial Alliance Business Competition held on Saturday, April 20.

Five teams competed in the event. In order to qualify for the competition, team members had to take part in entrepreneurial and business workshops this past fall and spring, Entrepreneurial Alliance (EA) Student President Victoria Feng ’13 said. During the competition, presenters were evaluated based on criteria such as their company overview, marketing and sales strategy, delivery and more. Ntuli and Tagliente each earned a portion of the $15,000 first prize sum.

Ntuli’s company is called Photons and was established in 2012. Last summer, the Zimbabwe native, who studies geoscience and physics, received money from the Linda K. Cotter Internship Fund, which he used to provide lamps to orphans in Zimbabwe through an initiative he called Light Zimbabwe.

After recognizing the amount of interest in acquiring the lamps and realizing that he could not sustain the business solely on donations, he decided to found Photons. The company is “a social enterprise that provides affordable solar rechargeable lamps to schoolchildren and their families living in the rural areas of Zimbabwe,” according to its profile on the EA website. “Sixty-six percent of Zimbabweans do not have access to electricity, the vast majority of whom also live below the poverty line. Therefore, cheap, renewable lighting is key to help them move out of poverty,” the description states.

An economics major and administrative science minor, Tagliente is spending the spring semester at home in the Boston area in order to focus on his company, Gopinion, full time. As stated on the EA website, “Gopinion is a simple mobile app that effectively bridges the communication gap between information-seeking businesses and survey-fatigued consumers by rewarding consumers for their ‘Gopinions.’ Users fill out ‘micro-surveys’ which take approximately 20 seconds to complete and by doing so immediately receive a mobile reward that can be redeemed at any Gopinion Business.”

Tagliente said that he was inspired to create Gopinion after growing up watching his father sort through the comment cards guests submitted at the hotel he ran. Whenever his father received a negative comment, he would call up the customer and offer them an incentive to come back, Tagliente said. “I thought, you know what, if I could do this on a large scale, I think it could be a pretty powerful thing,” he said. Tagliente co-founded Gopinion May 2012 with his friend Chris Muto, a student at Duke University. Muto’s sister (Katie ’11), Tagliente’s father and one of his friends also work for the company. Earlier this year, Gopinion entered the Duke Startup Challenge and won first place within the Internet and technology track, which was the most competitive track and included MBA student competitors.

Ntuli said that he will use the money he earned from the competition to register his company, launch its website, purchase lamps and print material to market and advertise the company in rural Zimbabwe. Some of the profits from Photons will be used to support Light Zimbabwe. Tagliente plans to use the funding from both the Colby and Duke competitions to compensate summer interns who will specialize in technical development.

Both students appreciated the opportunity to present their work in front of the competition’s judges, who consisted of Dekkers Davidson P ’10, Jennifer Mason Drolet ’97, Professor of Computer Science and Department Chair Bruce Maxwell, Jeff Rothschild P ’16 and William L. Stauffer ’89. All of these individuals come from various backgrounds—Rothschild, for example, “is considered the architect of Facebook,” while Stauffer “is an industry leader in LED lighting solutions and owner of Eco-Story, based in Portland, Maine,” according to the bios the EA provided.

Ntuli said that students Leah Breen ’15, Nkosingiphile Shongwe ’15, Thabiso Kunene ’15 and Thabile Ncube ’15 assisted him with the business plan and pitch for Photons. He enjoyed having the judges, who he considers very accomplished, “critique my business idea and be willing to provide feedback,” noting that he has been in touch with these individuals since the event.

One challenge, in addition to making the pitch while not coming from a business background, was “balancing academic work with preparing the pitch,” Ntuli said. “The profit part of the pitch was also hard since I had to strike the optimum price that people can afford and still enable Photons to profit.”

Tagliente appreciated “speaking with the judges and hearing their stories” and “definitely being in that type of investor setting with a crowd.... It was a lot of fun, it was exciting.” He said that “it was all challenging, I just really loved it….I love entrepreneurship, and I…really love seeing other people’s business ideas and I love competing. It was a lot of fun.”

He noted that the Q&A at the end of the competition was probably the most challenging aspect, but “it was so much fun,” he said. “If you’re gonna do this, you gotta be willing to be a little crazy and have a lot of fun with it.”

Sarah Lyon '13

Sarah Lyon is the Echo's editor-in-chief. A senior sociology major from Bethesda, Maryland, Sarah spent last spring studying abroad in Edinburgh, Scotland. This past summer, Sarah interned at Parade Magazine in New York City through the American Society of Magazine Editors (ASME) program. Previously, she has held internships at Bethesda Magazine.