One of the great things that’s constantly emphasized about Fuqua is that it is a risk-free learning environment. So does taking the element of risk out of speculative ventures enhance the learning potential? According to the participants of the Duke Start-Up Challenge 2013-2014, the answer to that is a resounding yes!

A significant number of students coming to business school aspire to be entrepreneurs one day. And so, the Duke Start-Up Challenge was set up in 1999 with the aim of providing budding entrepreneurs with a platform for them to showcase their ideas, and to receive guidance and mentorship for refining them into viable business models. While all the participants who go through the successive rounds receive extensive coaching, the winners also get a cash prize of $50,000 to kick-start their business!

This past year, teams that included students from the MMS:FOB program participated in the challenge. The business ideas submitted by teams from our program ranged from setting up a sports community to an alternative airline hub model. Though the competition was intense and 150 teams from across the university participated, one of the MMS teams–Sportsmode–was among the top 30 teams that moved on to the second round.

I spoke to the team leader of Sportsmode, Kawa Zhang MMS ‘14, and asked him what were the key lessons he learned from this experience.

Kawa has a background in medical sciences, and was working as a registered nurse in Indianapolis before coming to the MMS program.  According to him, while it is fairly common to meet people who have interesting ideas, it’s the people who can process the necessary technical knowledge to translate those ideas into a sound business plan who are hard to come by. This ability is what sets teams apart, and is what the MMS program helped him develop.

Without a background in business, Kawa was initially unsure of how to give his idea shape and form. With the help of the courses in finance, strategy and marketing, he was able to prepare a mold for Sportsmode.

“At the beginning, while I was interested and had an idea and experience, I did not know where to start. The MMS program helped me to gain insight and develop my idea.” – Kawa Zhang

Howie Rhee, the Managing Director of the Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation, is the main man behind the challenge (the incubator for students) and helps the students with resources and aids, such as writing a business plan, preparing presentations for investor acquisition, designing marketing campaigns, etc.

One of Kawa’s greatest challenges was putting a team together early in the year, while balancing school work and recruiting with competition. He also felt that the best part about the challenge was the support system that had been created for the students. Regardless of the final outcome, the ideas that deserved attention were being given an opportunity.

Finally, even if you don’t end up winning, you still come out with a more structured idea, a great experience and a lot more confidence!