Back when COVID-19 first began to spread in March 2020, many universities were getting ready to hold their final rounds of their pitch competitions. Nathan Lillegard, the director of the University of Oregon Lundquist Center for Entrepreneurship’s New Venture Championship, remembers turning to his team, concerned.
“I don’t think we’re going to do NVC this year,” he told them, referring to the competition which attracts dozens of students across the world to compete for $50,000. The school ended up canceling its 2020 competition. In 2021, it hosted its event virtually, like many other schools across the country.
Now, for the third time, university teams are meeting to navigate the fast-changing pandemic. Many are opting for an in-person gathering in some capacity for their 2022 events, following suit with their university guidelines. Students, staff and alumni are itching to get back to the in-person excitement.
But many universities have a plan that enables them to pivot to a virtual event, if omicron or another variant disrupts the springtime competition season.
Broadening the Stage
Despite a pandemic and changing event formats, none of the schools Times of E talked to saw a major dip in applications – most numbers remained about the same.
It’s possible the virtual format actually encouraged some students to apply. At the University of Oregon, students from Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and some countries in Africa applied for the first time, which could be due to the virtual competition’s accessibility, Lillegard said.
Mentors for the University of California-Davis Big Bang! Business Competition typically come in-person from the nearby region. But with the virtual component, alumni from all over the country could mentor students, coordinator Karen Harding-Davis said. “That’s something like a silver lining that we’re actually going to keep.”
There’s also an ease for mentors and judges to log on to a video call for an hour rather than traveling to participate. It’s sometimes much easier to get someone on board when they only have to dedicate a slice of their time rather than an entire weekend, Lillegard said.
It’s yet to be seen what application numbers will look like this year, but overall coordinators are noticing a bigger turn to entrepreneurship throughout the pandemic, especially after recent graduates struggled to find jobs.
“It’s in those times of uncertainty that you see entrepreneurship skyrocket,” said Amy Sallin, the director at the University of Washington Foster School of Business’ Buerk Center For Entrepreneurship. “I think we saw a lot of that, and it just shows how scrappy and determined students are whatever you throw at them.”
Options for Distanced Events
2020 was a year of pure scramble, and 2021 meant adapting to a new virtual world. “We were scrappy, and it was crazy,” Sallin said.
This year’s comparatively normal approach is a relief. The University of California-Davis competition team hosted its kickoff event and workshops a few weeks ago, which Harding-Davis said were well attended. “It seems like a lot of people are really eager to be back networking.”
But there are still changes. Even though many universities are returning to in-person, many aren’t planning to go back to business as usual.
For instance, the kickoff events and sessions at the University of California-Davis were held outside, and its team videotaped the indoor portion of its in-person launch event to allow people uncomfortable with being close indoors to remain outside. The University of Washington’s Dempsey Startup Competition will be held at a venue double the size so that people can spread out more during its tradeshow-style pitch round.
Over the last nearly two years, many university teams have been collaborating to make their calls. For instance, George Washington University hosted its competition a month before the University of California- Davis back in 2020, so its coordinators worked with Harding-Davis and her team to give advice on what worked and what didn’t.
Now, directors and coordinators continue to collaborate as they navigate how they plan to run their competition. “It was nice to have that small network of directors so we can find out what everyone was doing,” said Catherine Santamaria, the director of the Rice Business Plan Competition.
Give and Take
There’s no doubt that virtual events have their downfalls. One of the main barriers is networking – it’s much more difficult to bump into someone or start a conversation in a video call setting than it is in real-life.
Some schools took steps to remedy this. The University of Washington used Remo Virtual Conference–a program that sits participants at tables instead of a large group or breakout rooms—for its reception event last year to create as much of a networking space as possible through the remote platform.
There’s also the fatigue of sitting in front of a computer screen all day. Some schools fought this by spreading out their events – Harding-Davis and her team extended the event that is typically one full day into two days to keep people’s attention.
Competitions are also tied to the wants of their funders, who often put their dollars toward the event to attract people to their city. These events are gathering spaces for alumni and entrepreneurship communities to meet up, and there’s not a replacement for that other than in-person, coordinators agreed.
Of course, there’s a chance universities, cities and states will make another lockdown call due to the omicron variant. Coordinators are prepared and ready to pivot if that’s the case. Many of them have done it once before, after all.
“Whether it’s virtual or in person, we want to do everything we can to give [students] a good experience to help them understand what it takes to be an entrepreneur,” Sallin said. “While the in person energy is amazing and everyone’s excited to be seeing each other, if it has to get dialed back to virtual the experience is still valuable.”