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How to Make Business-Plan Contests Pay

I read your column about women and business contests. I have a business plan that I would like to enter into as many contests as possible. Are they all geared toward students? How do I get a list and contact information for these competitions? —R.T., Jackson, Miss.

Entering business contests is a great exercise, not only because you have a chance at gaining cash winnings and outside investment, but for the chance to get expert feedback on your plan and do some networking and marketing on behalf of your company.

Contests are definitely time-consuming and may have entry fees and travel costs that could add up. So before you enter as many as you can find, take a few moments to think about your priorities. Is your start-up ready to pursue money or attract investors? Are you mostly looking for business advice and mentoring? Or do you want to make an audience beyond your local market aware of your business idea?

“Depending on what’s most important for you and what stage your venture is in, that will indicate which contests you enter and whether you want to use other methods to meet some of your objectives,” says Susan Duffy, executive director of The Center for Women’s Leadership at Babson College. “Be discriminating about all the support that’s out there. You may enter one contest, get some fabulous detailed feedback, and implement that to get you to the next stage, when you’ll be ready to enter another one.”

There are contests across the country for almost every level of entrepreneur and small business owner. While many are sponsored by universities, they are definitely not all for students. Some, but not all, are specifically geared for women entrepreneurs. Kimberly A. Porrazzo, president of, a newswire for female-owned businesses, entered the Irvine Entrepreneur Forum, a contest run by her local Irvine, Calif., chamber of commerce last year. She did not have to be a member to participate, she says.

Start Locally

“Business plan competitions are great. They really help you refine your own business model as you prepare to pitch your idea,” she says. In terms of competitions, it might be smart for you to start locally so you get an idea of what’s required in a contest, how much time it will take away from starting your business, and how your plan stacks up against others in your area. Ask your network of business-owning women for recommendations about local competitions. If you haven’t yet joined a local entrepreneur group, look for one online: Porrazzo’s company operates a free social network, on which more than 500 female entrepreneurs discuss business issues.

Beth Marcello, director of women’s business development at PNC Bank (PNC) in Pittsburgh, says many cities and regional business organizations hold contests designed to stimulate local economic development. “I would check with [the Small Business Administration], Small Business Development Centers, and Women’s Business Centers to see if they serve as clearinghouses,” she says. The Startup America Partnership, an entrepreneur-development initiative of the Obama Administration, has a resource directory that might prove helpful.

Many for-profits and nonprofits sponsor competitions or help women prepare for competitions, including Count Me In for Women’s Economic Independence (which operates the Make Mine a Million program); the Cartier Women’s Initiative; Women 2.0; the National Association of Women Business Owners; Womenable; and Ernst & Young.

Don’t focus solely on contests for women business owners. Some angel investors and venture capital funds are looking to invest in female-owned ventures and don’t necessarily require you to enter a competition. If your business is a good fit for private capital, look into Golden Seeds, Isabella Capital, and Women’s Venture Capital Fund. Good luck!


Klein is a Los Angeles-based writer who covers entrepreneurship and small-business issues.

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