July 20, 2019 | 96° F

Entrepreneurial RBS students awarded $20,000


Courtesy of Ray Rossi | The students of the 2015-2016 Rutgers Business Plan Competition won funding for their entrepreneurial ventures.

The winners of the 2015-2016 Rutgers Business Plan Competition went to great lengths to transform their passions into viable ventures, from journeying to remote villages in Turkey for towels to traveling to South America in search of “super fruits.”

After a panel of judges reviewed 32 executive summary submissions and hopeful Rutgers entrepreneurs pitched their businesses, three winners were announced last Friday.

Abby Taylor, Robert Goldman and Desi Saran, three Rutgers MBA graduates, won the $20,000 prize for their tasty treat Playa Bowls. The second-place $15,000 prize was awarded to an app called InteractWith, the brainchild of Rutgers MBA graduates Amanda Fuchs and Angelo Stracquatanio.

Third-place winners Asif Hilal, Dimitry Apollonsky, Zion Kim and Melissa Diep made a splash as the first undergraduate team to receive the $10,000 cash prize in recent years. The team showcased PSTML, their top-of-the-line Turkish towel business.

Rutgers is encouraging entrepreneurship, said Ray Rossi, director of the competition.

“Students have to create an executive summary that describes their business in two pages and then present a comprehensive business plan,” he said. “New businesses are the engine of the economy.”

First-Place Winners: A Berry Viable Business Plan

Robert Giuliani and Abby Taylor visited South America last year for a surf trip, but returned to New Jersey with the idea for a healthy boardwalk snack called Playa Bowl.

Playa Bowl is a healthy food stand that offers exotic fruits, such as acai, lulu and pitaya in the form of bowls and smoothies, Giuliani said. The team delivers tropical fruits to the Jersey shore from all over the world, from the jungles of Nicaragua to the rainforests of Brazil.

“When Abby and I went on these trips, we saw acai and lulu berries all over the place,” Giuliani said. “There were shops selling smoothies that had these fruit toppings on them, so we had an idea to bring this to the Jersey shore.”

Desi Saran, a Rutgers MBA graduate and past competition winner, joined Giuliani and Taylor in the summer of 2014 to help with the business strategy, financial operations, marketing and expansion.

Playa Bowl is in the process of raising an additional $20,000 to fund and open two additional stands for summer 2015, in addition to their current stands in Belmar and Long Beach Island, Giuliani said.

Playa Bowl faces challenges including sourcing fruit from a number of different vendors and dealing with a seasonal business, Rossi said. 

“Playa Bowls has a really good product,” Rossi said. “(Playa Bowls) wanted to expand, and we felt as though their product had a high probability of becoming successful.”

Second-Place Winners: “Easy A,” Not So Easy Anymore

There were 781 nationally reported cases of inappropriate student-teacher relationships last year as a result of unsupervised texting, said Amanda Fuchs, co-founder of InteractWith. New Jersey is ranked seventh in the U.S. for these cases.

InteractWith, which launched in December of this year, provides schools with an app that allows teachers to safely message students through mobile without sharing personal phone numbers, she said.

The app gives administrators access to message archives and allows them to report any inappropriate incidents, which Fuchs said separates the app from others. The app currently has a pool of more than 1,000 users and is growing rapidly.

“Rutgers has a lot of connections with New Jersey educators,” Fuchs said. “By winning the competition, we are getting a lot of awareness to the Rutgers community about this issue.”

Fuchs came up with the idea for InteractWith when speaking with her friend who taught at a school that spent a large sum of money on providing teachers with smartphones. Smartphones owned by the school are costly, but were the only way to ensure transparency, Fuchs said.

InteractWith provides a simpler and cheaper solution to this problem, she said.

Fuchs and her partner plan to use the $15,000 prize to market their app and get the app in the hands of as many educators and students as possible.

“We want to make global communications safer,” she said.

Fuchs described the competition as nerve-racking and comparable to the TV show Shark Tank but learned business lessons in the process.

“(You need to) think about the problem you’re solving,” she said. “Before you go into a business, you need to think ‘Is this a problem?’ and ‘Is there a need for it?”

Third-Place Winners: Income from Istanbul

After spending Thanksgiving in a remote village in Turkey, the undergraduate entrepreneurs of a towel company called PSTML won $10,000 in seed money to grow their business.

Asif Hilal, Dimitry Apollonsky, Zion Kim and Melissa Diep began their towel business last year, and are recognized as the first team composed of mainly undergraduates to win the competition in recent years.

The group researched Turkish towels and found out they have a lot of cultural, traditional and historical significance behind them, said Kim, a Rutgers Business School graduate.

Turkish towels are thinner and more lightweight than your usual towel, Kim said. Turkish cotton strands are shorter and the more the towels are washed, the better the material becomes.

“It’s a lot like wine," he said. "The older it gets, the better it gets."

The team ran a Kickstarter campaign in August to raise money for their product and amassed a total of $22,000. Four months later, the team traveled to Turkey to meet with the manufacturers of their towels.

Journeying to Turkey gave the team a chance to interview the towel artisans who make the product that they sell in America, Kim said. Some of the artisans have been making Turkish towels for more than 40 years and began at age seven, he said.

“We went to Turkey and took some pictures for social media, so it was a good marketing platform too,” said Diep, a Rutgers Business School junior.

The team has overcome many obstacles over the past year, from searching for an English translator in Turkey, storing towels in Apollonsky’s garage and juggling schoolwork with business responsibilities.

"Sometimes we'll be in class and have to pick up phone calls," Kim said. "There's just no way around it. If a customer or partner calls you, you just have to run out of class."

Avalon Zoppo

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