Fueling the Fire for Local Business

A humanitarian de-mining company; a fair-trade, eco-friendly, Internet-based retail store; a local sustainable energy cooperative -- Over the last year, a number of students at both Humboldt State and College of the Redwoods certainly proved they have the great ideas as well as the passion and drive to put those business plans in action. All they needed was the fuel to make it happen Economic Fuel, to be precise.

Humboldt County’s first-ever student business challenge, Economic Fuel was the brainchild of Rob Arkley, a local philanthropist and owner of the sponsoring newspaper, the Eureka Reporter.

“As I understand the story,” says HSU business student and one of three Economic Fuel organizers, Tera Spohr, “he read about a business plan competition going on elsewhere and realized that it could, and needed to be done in this area.”

Business plan competitions have been around since the 1980s when two University of Texas MBA students developed Moot Corp, a business school challenge resembling law school’s “moot court.” Now, some of the nation’s most prestigious universities — UC Berkeley, MIT, Harvard, Duke, and Yale, to name a few — have developed such programs, mostly for graduate business students.

Economic Fuel, however, was designed especially for the up-and-coming entrepreneur – graduate or undergraduate, business or any other major. The idea was to offer an opportunity to gain experience and insight with the help of local business owners.

After registering back in February, participating students or recent graduates from Humboldt State and College of the Redwoods attended Thursday evening seminars with local businessmen and women — all in preparation to compile a full written business plan followed by a judged, five-minute elevator pitch that took place in April.

The business plan contest provided students and recent graduates with the incentive to apply their education and talents here in the local community; nurture local economic development by supporting students/entrepreneurs-to-be; serve as a link between the local universities, businesses, and the community; encourage and support county-wide education efforts aimed toward entrepreneur hopefuls; and offer some seed capital to help fuel these new entrepreneurial endeavors.

The cash prizes totaled $117,000 — far more than many other university business competitions. The four grand prize winners — College of the Redwoods student Alia Bhimani, HSU student Paul Burgess and professor Ken Owens, CR students Brooks Call and Thomas Carter, and HSU student River Hume — received $25,000 each; runner-up team Chris Kieselhorst of HSU and brother Nick Kieselhorst of CR took home $10,000; second runner up, HSU botany student Ciaran McCarthy, $5,000; and two honorable mentions — HSU graduate Penny Schafer and current student James Wright — were given $1,000.

“These winners now have a jumpstart in the amount of capital they need to get their businesses off the ground, and have proven to this community that they are willing to put in the work,” said Spohr.

But competitors agree across the board — the benefits of the competition were far reaching.

Even if you don’t win, the learning that takes place is real and what you gain will be with you forever,” said Chris Kieselhorst, who, with his brother Nick, created a plan for a specialized gate, fence, and metalworking company called Ironside Metal Works.

“The competition has built important skills, including time management, scheduling, setting goals and meeting them, talking with other people and businesses,” he said. “And the biggest one is probably confidence building, which is huge in business.”

Penny Schafer, who was an art major, already had her fair trade, organic, and green gifts company, Taraluna, up and running when she caught word of the competition. “I had no business background,” she said. “The competition forced me to look at my business more closely.”

Of course, inspiring up-and-coming entrepreneurs is only half of the Economic Fuel mission accomplished. The competition also benefits the community by supporting new local business — many of which, in themselves, are bound to make a positive impact on the community and the world.

“We support local artists and we plan to stay and grow in Humboldt County,” Penny Schafer said of her company. “We also feel that offering socially and environmentally responsible products adds to what this community is all about.”

Mohamed Jemmali, an MBA graduate from HSU, worked with engineer Steve Salzman to develop what they call Humble Panel, a company specializing in concrete-insulated panels used in the construction of homes.

“Humble Panel’s construction material will save 10 trees per house and reduce CO2 emissions by 60 percent,” Jemmali explained. “In addition, it is a better home for a cheaper price.”

Tera Spohr said one of the main goals — and accomplishments — was to give recently graduated students a reason to incorporate their fresh ideas here in Humboldt County. “New businesses not only give back economically but they show other graduates, college or high school, that there are opportunities to succeed and advance even from behind the redwood curtain,” she said.

Like many of the Economic Fuel competitors, Chris Kieselhorst dreams of making a difference with his business. “I see Ironside Metal Works becoming an inspiring leader in the business community of Humboldt County, and promote the values and wonderful attributes that this area has to offer.”

But it was the challenge presented by Economic Fuel that took his idea to written business plan to the completion of his first Ironside Metal Works gate for Almquist Lumber Company in Blue Lake.

“I’m very busy,” he said. “But I’m having fun and feel like I get to start making things happen.”

Economic Fuel is scheduled to continue in 2007, with a new class of entrepreneur hopefuls, and maybe even some returning ones, too.

“Yes, I’m improving Humble Panel’s business plan for next year’s competition,” said Mohamed Jemmali.

The second annual contest will award more than $100,000 in seed capital to Humboldt County student entrepreneurs and is scheduled to be launched on Wednesday, October 11, in the Kate Buchanan Room at 6:30 p.m. Students from Humboldt State, College of the Redwoods, and recent graduates of any accredited university currently residing in Humboldt County are eligible to enter.

For more information about the competition, visit http://www.economicfuel.org/ .