Judges clapping

Fowler Business Concept Challenge Celebrates 15 Years of Innovation and Entrepreneurship

Glittering purple, silver and white decorate the James B. Woulfe Alumni Hall. Decorated with flowers, balloons and refreshments, the hall is bustling with people. Students from multiple disciplines across the University of St. Thomas are center stage as they participate in the 15th annual Fowler Business Concept Challenge, a celebration of innovation.

The bright-eyed students, who don sharp suits, polished shoes, fresh haircuts and classy blouses, await the final decisions of esteemed business leaders present to judge the quality of their concepts that aim to make a difference in the world.  

Among the judges is Ron Fowler ’66. The namesake benefactor has been a champion for hundreds of entrepreneurial-minded Tommies for decades. He recognizes that a winning concept can come from any student, whether a first-year or a graduate student, regardless of major. After all, when he started as a student at St. Thomas in the 1960s, he says he wanted to be a high school guidance counselor. Then he took a business course from then-Professor Tom Bohen, spurring Fowler’s career in marketing and sales.  

“The interdepartmental interest has exceeded my wildest dreams,” he says about today’s widespread involvement in the Fowler Business Concept Challenge. “We have the entire university involved, not just the business school.”  

Originally launched in 2008 as an initiative to help with the accreditation of Opus College of Business, the nationally recognized competition has evolved. The Fowler Business Concept Challenge, which has disbursed more than $965,000 in scholarships, expanded in 2015 to include a social venture track. Ron Fowler describes this as an integral part of meeting tomorrow’s challenges. 

“One thing that’s becoming more and more important is social entrepreneurship,” said Fowler, who served on the St. Thomas Board of Trustees from 2009-14 and on the Athletic Advisory Board from 2011-14. “Social entrepreneurship is going to drive a lot of major corporations, our problems with housing, our problems with food security, our problems with decent medical care for everybody.” 

With the business challenge open to every student, the 115 students in the 2023 applicant pool represented 37 different academic programs submitting 76 concepts across the two different tracks: business and social venture. 

This year in the social venture track, the 16 semifinalist concepts included Afri Spirit, a mentoring service for mental health professionals, by psychology and family studies major Khanyilanga Ndlovu ’23, while Noah MacDonald and Natalie Larson, second-year students pursuing financial management and economics bachelor’s degrees, pitched sustainable footwear product Soul Shoes. 

Listening to the pitch of the social venture team Soul Shoes, it’s impossible not to be knocked off your feet. McDonald and Larson delivered with confidence something so innovative, researched and planned that some attendees felt it makes one want to pull out one’s wallet.    

Noah MacDonald and Natalie Larson showcase Soul Shoes at the Fowler Business Concept Challenge. (Brandon Woller ’17/University of St. Thomas)

“The quality of the presentations by some of these students ... was remarkable,” noted Fowler, an entrepreneur who is chairman and CEO of privately held distributor Liquid Investments Inc. 

The 16 semifinalist business track concepts included a trading card game called “Historia: The Rise of Heroes” from Bao (Derek) Le ’24, who’s pursuing a Master of Studies in Law; and a monthly subscription care for the elderly called Silver Linings from entrepreneurship and finance double major Justina Palmer, who’s on track to graduate in 2024. 

Whether entering the challenge as an individual or as part of a team, the student applicants throughout the last 15 years have been tasked with developing a new venture concept they believe would have the potential to become a viable, high-growth business.  

Leaders at the Opus College of Business and its acclaimed Schulze School of Entrepreneurship, which is ranked No. 22 on the Princeton Review’s annual list of top undergraduate entrepreneurship programs, believe the whole St. Thomas community has the potential to create creative solutions for the future. 

Elizabeth Nguyen and Philip Emmel pitched their concept Evala, an artificial intelligence and machine learning data extraction application to assist community members living with disabilities. The computer engineering major and the economics major were among the students who pitched their concepts at the Fowler Business Concept Challenge in James B. Woulfe Alumni Hall on Nov. 17, 2023, in St. Paul. (Brandon Woller ’17/University of St. Thomas)

“The message to all of our students through the Fowler Business Concept Challenge is that anybody can learn what it means to be an agent of change, to be somebody who can identify a problem, research it, and craft a solution,” said Laura Dunham, dean of the Opus College of Business. 

Dunham noted how befitting it is to have this successful program at St. Thomas. 

“We were one of the first schools in the country to have an entrepreneurship major taught by a dedicated department of people who had been entrepreneurs and who actually had been trained in entrepreneurship, teaching entrepreneurship and research,” she said. “Entrepreneurship is kind of in St. Thomas’ DNA. The university was started by Bishop John Ireland in an entrepreneurial spirit.” 

Danielle Campeau, the associate dean at St. Thomas’ Schulze School of Entrepreneurship, smiled from ear to ear as she recalled the 1,500 students who have taken part in the Fowler through the years: “There have been so many creative problem-solvers,” she said.  

Dhruv Bhinde pitches the CAFETEMP CONTROL STICK at the 2023 Fowler Business Concept Challenge. (Brandon Woller ’17/University of St. Thomas)

In addition to the competition event, the challenge is a semester-long endeavor and goes beyond creating a larger value in society.  

“It really rewards students to come up with ideas and share those ideas at the very early stage,” Campeau added. “I think it helps to boost confidence for those students that say, ‘Hey, I have an idea and I can actually create a business model around this idea. I can pitch this in front of people.’ So, it really helps to provide that self-confidence that all students across campus can be entrepreneurial.” 

The great results over the years give donors faith in the Fowler Business Concept Challenge. The competition has created additional financial support. In addition to donations from the Ron and Alexis Fowler family, U.S. Bank and longtime Schulze School supporter Brian Mark have made more awards available for students. And the Fowler family also supports the Fowler Global Social Innovation Challenge (Fowler GSIC), a collaboration between the University of San Diego and the University of St. Thomas. 

The greater Minneapolis-St. Paul business community is also very supportive of the Fowler Business Concept Challenge, the Schulze School of Entrepreneurship and the future of St. Thomas students. This is evidenced by the quality of leaders who show up each year to mentor the students and judge the entries. 

Ron Fowler speaks at the Fowler Business Concept Challenge on the second floor of Anderson Student Center on Nov. 17, 2023, in St. Paul. (Brandon Woller ’17/University of St. Thomas)

Some of the finalist judges for the 2023 event included GHR Foundation’s CEO and Chair Amy Goldman, venture capitalist Ann Winblad ’75 M.E.D, and CURiO Brands CEO Anne Sempowski Ward, who all sit on the St. Thomas Board of Trustees. They were joined by several others, including Amherst H. Wilder Foundation CFO Keven Ambrus, Best Buy’s Chief Inclusion and Diversity Officer Amelia Hardy, and Mark Copman, a senior vice president at 3M. 

Dozens of alumni who served as judges at various stages mentioned the impact the challenge has on the students, as well as on the judges themselves.  

“Learning about these students’ creative new ways to solve big problems and make the world a better place is always inspiring,” said Bret Busse ’97 MBA, senior vice president at Fathom Consulting. “And it was yet another opportunity to share the gift of feedback as they continue to develop and grow their ideas.” 

Andrew Pudwill ’10, vice president of Midwest Playscapes who received his bachelor’s degree from St. Thomas in business administration and entrepreneurship, recounted through a post on LinkedIn how “It’s very encouraging to hear all the great ideas and see all the enthusiastic young entrepreneurs.”  

Multiple judges, including Amelia Williams Hardy of Best Buy and Keven Ambrus of Wilder Foundation, provide feedback, recommendations and praise to teams at the 2023 Fowler Business Concept Challenge. (Brandon Woller ’17/University of St. Thomas)

Excellent networking and opportunities 

Participant Katie McDonald ’24 emphasized that the event provides an excellent opportunity to network with mentors, future investors and potential employers. 

“Competing is such an exciting experience … It’s an opportunity to network with your peers and working professionals,” said McDonald, who conceived LABLE, a centralized e-commerce adaptive clothing marketplace, with partners Max Karas ’24 and Sam Gausmann ’24, all entrepreneurship majors. 

Pitching a different business venture just one week prior at the U.S. Bank Idea Jam, McDonald and Karas exemplify entrepreneurship majors at St. Thomas who are full of grit and persistence, challenging themselves to innovate at every opportunity. 

“Entrepreneurs need to plan before they jump in,” said Fowler, who was once the owner and managing general partner of the San Diego Sockers professional soccer team and served as vice chairman of the San Diego Padres, in which he has an ownership stake. “Secondly, they need to be prepared to cover their downside.”  

Phoemela Hernandez '27, an accounting and finance major who developed commercial real estate concept Aquinas Acquisitions, was among the teams who showcased their ventures at the 2023 Fowler Business Concept Challenge. (Brandon Woller ’17/University of St. Thomas)

Fowler, through years of experience, knows lack of preparation can threaten creative and innovative ideas. His additional advice to the students: “Be prepared to fail. Pick yourself up, dust off and go for it again, because most of us have failed a lot.” 

At the end of the day, all the hard work, can pay off. Jessica Cooley, executive director of the Schulze School of Entrepreneurship, announced the top scholarship winners. They will receive $15,000 each in scholarships. 

Executive MBA student Israel Tolu ’24 won the business track. His business Blue Nest Connect looks to address the digital literacy gap for seniors and to lower their risk of social isolation.  

Executive MBA student Israel Tolu ’24 (second from right) poses on stage with University of St. Thomas President Rob Vischer, Andrew Fowler, and Schulze School of Entrepreneurship Associate Dean Danielle Campeau at the Fowler Business Concept Challenge in James B. Woulfe Alumni Hall on Nov. 17, 2023. (Brandon Woller ’17/University of St. Thomas)

Law student Rosemary Maher ’25 won the social venture track. Her concept, OK Buddy Wellness Watch, uses biofeedback to help kids manage their mental health challenges. She credits the resources available at St. Thomas with helping her create her concept. 

Law student Rosemary Maher ’25 (second from right) poses on stage with University of St. Thomas President Rob Vischer, Andrew Fowler, and Schulze School of Entrepreneurship Associate Dean Danielle Campeau at the Fowler Business Concept Challenge in James B. Woulfe Alumni Hall on Nov. 17, 2023. (Brandon Woller ’17/University of St. Thomas)

Brant Skogrand ’04 MBC contributed to this story.

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