Entrepreneurs Tackle COVID-Era Challenges

Entrepreneurs Tackle COVID-Era Challenges

The Oregon Executive MBA's signature innovation boot camp—Ducks Disrupt: Silver Linings Pitchbook—returned for its second year this February and March. Nearly 50 of the region's professionals and graduate students came together via Zoom for two weekends to learn entrepreneurship essentials, develop startups, and then wrap up everything they learned by presenting in the final day's pitching competition. 

Drawing inspiration from a defining topic of the current era, the theme for 2021 challenged participants to tackle issues and opportunities related to the COVID-19 pandemic. 

This year's event welcomed a new facilitator: the Lundquist College's Andrew Nelson, who is an associate professor of management, the Randall C. Papé Chair in Entrepreneurship and Innovation, and the University of Oregon's associate vice president for entrepreneurship and innovation. Known internationally as a leading expert in entrepreneurship, Nelson is most familiar to Oregon Executive MBA students as the faculty member who introduces them to case methodology during their orientation and then teaches the program's popular course in opportunity recognition. 

Day One: Saturday, February 27

The evening kicked off at 6:00 p.m. with an introduction by Nelson followed by opening remarks from the Lundquist College's Edward Maletis Dean Sarah E. Nutter and University of Oregon President Michael Schill. 

Next up was Jim Mark, the CEO of Pacific Northwest commercial real estate firm Melvin Mark, who set the tone with a talk about finding opportunities in even the most troubling times. 

After Nelson covered entrepreneurship and innovation culture in a fast-paced session, it was time for the participants to pitch their ideas, recruit team members, and then sign off for the evening.

Day Two: Sunday, February 28

This day's focus was providing the newly formed teams with everything they'd need to work together developing their concepts in the weeks to come. In two brisk sessions, Nelson tackled customer-centric products and services, pivots, differentiation, and business models. 

Next, it was time for team members to consider how they would work with the volunteer mentors each group was assigned. To help them see how powerful this relationship can be, Wheyward Spirit founder Emily Darchuk. MBA '18—an alumna of the Lundquist College's Eugene-based full-time MBA program—described the ways her startup benefited from insights provided by her own mentor, Stonyfield Farm cofounder Gary Hirshberg. 

Day Three: Sunday, March 21

After three weeks of strategizing, pivoting, and pivoting some more, six teams returned for the final day of Ducks Disrupt: Silver Linings Pitchbook. 

First on the agenda was a panel covering that most essential startup need: funding. Three panelists—John Hull, CEO/CFO of RandE Holdings, LLC; Ann Carney Nelson, COO of Inpria Corporation; and Nitin Rai, managing partner of Elevate Capital—shared their deep knowledge and diverse perspectives on the role of venture capitalists in early-stage startups and beyond. 

For participants, this up-close look was eye-opening, to say the least.

“I loved the investors" talks. I had never been in that arena before, so it was very valuable," said Stephanie Magoulas, a member of team Change Finder and who is earning her MBA at Willamette University. 

Next, Mohan Nair—author, CEO of Emerge, Inc., and instructor of the Oregon Executive MBA's popular elective on transformational leadership—tapped his experience as a successful entrepreneur and innovator to discuss building high-performing teams. 

Last up was Kate Winkler—CEO of customer-engagement organization Ruby—shared her story of supporting staff morale and strengthening client connections while leading the company through the aftermath of 2020's stay-at-home orders. 

Then the big moment arrived. Drawn from the top tiers of the region's professional and entrepreneurial ranks, the event's four judges—Shari Dunn, CEO of ITBOM; Jordan Papé, CEO of  The Papé Group; Rick Richard, CEO of StaffUp app; and Linda Weston, principal of Rapporto—heard pitches from the six competing teams. 

As in last year's inaugural event, the ceoncepts were strong and the competition was fierce. In the end, four teams received top honors: First place went to Smart Doc, Change Finder took second, and Moksha and Virtual Sales Platform tied for third. 

In the end, for all of this year's paticipants, the event's rewards went far beyond simply receiving recognition for their hard work. It was an intense introduction to the world of innovation, providing skills and insights that can be used well into the future.

“I came into this expecting that I would learn by working with my group. But the panels were so helpful, and the lectures were so helpful. I underestimated how much I would learn from the ‘other stuff" besides actually working on a project," said Carson Gray, a member of Change Finder and who is currently earning his master of science degree in robotics at Oregon State University.

Congratulations to the members of this year's winning teams.