Encouraging Entrepreneurship: The Opportunity Funding Corporation's Venture Challenge Allows HBCU Students to Develop and Foster Sustainable Business Ventures

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In the mid-1990s, Amir Pirzadeh had an idea for improving saw mills. But he struggled with how to turn a technical innovation into a profitable business.

That changed in 2007 when Pirzadeh, an MBA student at Fayetteville State University, and classmates won a business competition--the Opportunity Funding Corporation's (OFC) Venture Challenge. Three years later, Pirzadeh saw his idea, a machinery company called Smart Saws, Inc., grow to $444,000 in gross sales. By making the machinery more efficient, saw mills can produce more lumber from fewer trees. The process has come a long way from the idea he had 15 years ago. "It really came together in 2007," says Pirzadeh, who now operates his company full time. "Before then it was more of a technical idea."

The Beginning, Challenges

Pirzadeh could not have translated his engineering concept into a business venture if it weren't for the OFC Venture Challenge. It began in 2000, when Dr. Mohammad Bhuiyan, now an endowed professor of entrepreneurship and the director of the Center for Entrepreneurship at Fayetteville State, joined an effort that sought to tackle economic disparities between Whites and other ethnic groups. In 1970, a $7.4 million grant from the Office of Economic Opportunity established OFC to test ways of attracting scarce capital into America's impoverished communities. Bhuiyan discovered at least one reason why there weren't enough successful African-American entrepreneurs: There were more than 100 historically Black colleges and universities but few had entrepreneurship programs.

For most of their history, HBCUs promoted upward mobility through higher education, offering degrees and graduate training in education, law, medicine, science and other fields. Under segregation, the most successful Black entrepreneurs were usually educated or licensed professionals who ran their own medical practices, law firms, churches or funeral homes.

Bhuiyan, who at the time taught management at Clark Atlanta University's School of Business Administration, established the OFC Venture Challenge to help HBCUs develop a comprehensive entrepreneurship curriculum. The annual competition held in Atlanta challenges HBCU students to hone their skills by developing sustainable business ventures.

For inspiration, Bhuiyan and his team looked to the Moot Corp Competition, the business-focused contest and conference that began in the 1980s. It takes place annually at the University of Texas at Austin and attracts students from around the world. …