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Imagination and Innovation Thrive at Business Plan Competition and Expo

Monday, April 4, 2016

Business creativity was on display as students of The Peter J. Tobin College of Business participated in the 2015-2016 James and Eileen Christmas Business Plan Competition and Expo on St. John’s University’s Queens campus on March 19. Underwritten by James W. (’70CBA, ’10HON) and Eileen Christmas, the event featured a unique presentation of five original student-created business plans that had been selected from a pool of 129 submissions to compete as finalists for $16,000 in prizes.

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The finalists were required to present their ideas before a select panel of business professionals, each a St. John’s alumnus, who evaluated the plans on a variety of factors such as creativity, uniqueness, product or service need, marketability, and overall sustainability. Judges included
 
James Christmas ’70CBA, ’10HON
Energy Industry Executive
 
Stephen Distante ’88CBA
CEO, Vanderbilt Financial Group
 
Anthony Orso ’85NDC
CoCEO and Cofounder, CCRE
 
Nicholas Plakoris ’77SVC, ’83MBA
Former Executive Director, Time, Inc., and Adjunct Associate Professor, Mass Communications, St. John’s University
 
Kevin F. Reed ’75C
Retired Marketing Executive
 
“Every time I interact with our students, I realize how wonderful and special they are,” said Conrado “Bobby” Gempesaw, Ph.D., President of St. John’s University. “It’s great to see the talent, creativity, and enthusiasm of the young people who participated in this competition. Their presentations reflect the hard work that lies at the foundation of all successful entrepreneurs, and I have no doubt that the future will be bright for each of them as they make their way into their professional careers after graduation.”
 
Having sponsored this prestigious and popular event since its inception in 2010, James and Eileen Christmas have made a significant and lasting difference for the students who one day hope to follow in their footsteps. By sharing their time, talent, and resources with these future entrepreneurs, they are helping to ensure that the University will continue to maintain its reputation as a leader in entrepreneurship education.
 
“The enthusiasm of the students who have participated in this event over the past few years has been terrific,” said James. “I’m looking to give the kids confidence to develop support for their ideas, whatever those ideas might be, so that they can make a strong and confident pitch to others who can help them turn those ideas into reality. It’s all about giving them the opportunity to maximize their own talent.”
 
“This event is an opportunity for the students to understand that they can be more than they ever thought possible, and it encourages them to really shoot high,” agreed Eileen. “It allows them to realize that they don’t have to wait for an opportunity to come their way from someone else, but that they can make their own opportunity.”
 
Cognizant of the reality that each business plan was created while the students were meeting the demands of a full academic course load, the judges were strongly impressed with students’  research, planning, and effort. They also recognized the professionalism of the exhibits and presentations.
 
“I was fortunate to be a judge last year,” noted Reed, “and I was incredibly pleased with the quality of the work that was generated by the students here at the University. All of those submissions were excellent, and this year they were equally as impressive. They showed a maturity level that is typically not found in the average 21-year-old. What most impressed me is that the students are receiving a world-class education. I’m very proud to be a St. John’s alumnus, and I was pleased to have been asked to serve as a judge again this year.”
 
For Stephen Distante, encouraging future entrepreneurs who also happen to be St. John’s students is a powerful combination, which is why he readily agreed to serve as a judge for this enterprising, one-of-a-kind event.
 
“Entrepreneurship is in my blood,” he said. “I started my first business when I was five years old, so I’ve been living this all my life. These kinds of competitions are really important to me in order to recognize upcoming entrepreneurs, mentor them, and give them some ‘experience share’—we don’t call it advice—and be able to foster new, cool ideas through events like this. And, needless to say, St. John’s is also super important to me. It’s the foundation that I’ve had throughout the years to find alumni and friends who share the same commitment that I do.”
 
Prior to the presentations of the five finalists, a number of students shared their business plans with alumni, faculty, and other interested spectators through attractive and informative tabletop displays.
 
A junior in the Tobin College of Business, Alexandria Defalco ’17TCB created a unique combination washer/dryer that she hoped would gain the attention of supporters within the investment and business communities. Her idea to simplify an ordinary household chore  reduces time, energy, and space for the average consumer, resulting in overall savings that makes it an attractive appliance in the future.
 
“Rather than having two machines, a washer, and a dryer, my idea is to have one machine that will wash and dry the clothes at the same time,” she explained. “Instead of taking the clothes out of the washing machine and putting them into the dryer, you just put the clothes in and the machine will wash and dry them all at once. It sends a notification to your phone, tablet, or computer when the clothes are done. I actually want to start my own business, so I thought that participating in this event would be a good way to get it going.”
 
The University’s Vincentian mission of making a difference was a factor in a number of student presentations. For Langmia Fonjoe ’17SRM, a junior in the Tobin College’s School of Risk Management, Insurance, and Actuarial Science, the chance to provide opportunities for young women in his native Africa was the motivation behind his unique and culturally inclusive business plan. Although he attends classes in Manhattan, Fonjoe manages the African Dance Team on the Queens campus, an activity designed to provide the St. John’s community with exposure to a form of artistic expression somewhat different from their own.
 
“I’m here as a representative of the African Dance Team, and we’d like to formulate a social entrepreneurship program to assist young women in our home countries of Cameroon and Nigeria,” he said. “We want to promote entrepreneurship in Africa, and we also want to promote young women’s attendance in school. Right now, many young women in Africa don’t have the opportunity to go to school. They’re not looked at as people who are capable of doing great things or becoming future leaders. So we’re trying to help them maximize their talents. We are looking at a population that we’re one and the same with, and we’re reaching out our hand to them as they reach out their hand to us. It’s making a difference for others, which is what the St. John’s mission is all about.”
 
As they waited for the announcement of the award winners, participants enjoyed lunch as keynote speaker Margaret Keane ’81C, ’87MBA, President and Chief Executive Officer of Synchrony Financial, described what she considered to be important for anyone planning to start a new business. Prior to her current position, this dynamic double alumna enjoyed an extensive career in finance, spending 16 years as a senior level executive at Citibank, followed by 18 years at GE Capital, where she served as President and Chief Executive Officer  of the retail card platform and President and Chief Executive Officer of the retail finance business.
 
“There are certain things that help to make a successful entrepreneur,” noted Keane. “You need to be willing to do a lot of hard work, have the ability to take risks, and have fun at the same time. As a student, hard work is the most important factor right now. Students need to get good grades in school. Then, I suggest that they secure good internships. I think that’s an important way for them to find what they really want to do. Once they get into the workforce, they need to be patient. The younger generation has a tendency to want to move fast, and that’s great, but to be successful you really need to earn your stripes along the way.”
 
The event concluded with the announcement of the judges’ selection of the winners, in rank order, of the finalists in the competition. Those selections included:
 
Honorable Mention
Seung Hoon Kang ’16TCB, Queens campus
 
Honorable Mention
Travis Haas ’16TCB, Queens campus
 
Third Place
Marc Saint-Ulysse ’17TCB, Queens campus
 
Second Place
Avik Saha ’17G, Queens campus
 
First Place
Albert Bateh ’16TCB, Staten Island campus
 
Bateh earned first place for his creation of EZ-Net, a hair accessory product that simplifies the removal of hair that becomes tangled in a brush. The consumer wraps an elastic net around the brush, which after brushing can be quickly and easily lifted off, thereby removing the residue of loose hair that would otherwise remain in the bristles. EZ-Net became a New York limited liability company in 2014.
 
“It feels great to win, especially against this group of really tough competitors,” he said. “It shows that I have a good product, and winning today will help me even more and push me to get my idea to even more people. My next step is to enjoy this and not stress about it for a little while, and then get right back on the horse and continue to grow my business.”
 
Spoken like a true entrepreneur!

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