TCU competition encourages businesses to have a purpose

A year ago, Flint Holbrook and Nic Cain were engineering students at Oklahoma State University, with job offers from Halliburton, when they came to Fort Worth to participate in an annual competition at TCU for budding entrepreneurs.

It was a life-changing experience.

The two didn’t win the contest — they came in fourth — but they received enough positive feedback and made enough contacts that they turned down their job offers and pursued their own dream.

Today, their company, American Remembrance, is based just south of downtown at Tech Fort Worth. The company arranges for families to have flowers delivered to veterans’ grave sites at national cemeteries and provides online memorial sites. It also works with funeral homes and cemeteries to serve local markets.

And this weekend, Holbrook, 23, will tell his story to students at this year’s Richards Barrentine Values and Ventures business plan competition at TCU’s Neeley School of Business.

Now in its fourth year, the competition will host students from 24 U.S. universities, plus teams from the Netherlands, Croatia, Mexico, Canada and Scotland, all competing for a $25,000 first prize and other awards. Texas participants include TCU, Southern Methodist University, the University of North Texas, the University of Texas at Austin, UT Arlington and UT Dallas.

Local business leaders will serve as judges and mentors, scoring teams on their business plans, their presentations, a values component and viability.

“This is our own version of March Madness,” said Brad Hancock, director of the Neeley Entrepreneurship Center.

While many schools host business plan competitions, most target graduate students, Hancock said. TCU set itself apart by requiring students to develop plans for businesses that not only make money but also have a meaningful social purpose.

“This millennial generation really wants to do well, to be successful,” Hancock said. “But we’re struck time and again by how many of them want to live a life of meaning.”

Products and services being pitched this year include a medical device developed at Johns Hopkins to help neonatal infants; tea made by Bhutanese refugees who would have jobs in Michigan; and a carbonated drink to help subsidize water purification in Mexican villages.

The idea for the contest was developed after Dallas business owner Nancy Richards, whose two sons attended TCU, came to the school seeking a way to help mentor budding entrepreneurs.

She and business partner Lisa Barrentine agreed to become naming sponsors of the competition and have contributed a significant portion of the program’s $2 million endowment, Richards said.

The women, who run First Preston HT, an Addison-based real estate management and software company, are personally committed to social involvement.

Since 1999, they have set aside a percentage of their profits for community causes and found that it has both motivated their employees and attracted new customers. The company has built 40 Habitat for Humanity houses and built transitional housing for the homeless, among its projects.

“Our business never prospered more than when we we were taking the time to give back to the community,” Richards said.

Holbrook said he and Cain got the idea for American Remembrance from a friend who served in Afghanistan and lost comrades in a plane crash. They were picked to attend the competition after talking with people in OSU’s entrepreneur program.

They thought their trip to Fort Worth would simply be a fun academic exercise. But they were encouraged by officials with Tech Fort Worth and the Cowtown Angels investor group to move forward with their idea.

“We were totally surrounded with very influential and successful businesspeople who wanted us to succeed,” Holbrook said.

The first year has been a roller coaster, he said, but the company is making progress. “We’re not quite to break-even, but we’re getting close,” he said.