The BizTech Challenge Shines a Light on HBCU Tech Entrepreneurs — Nexus Louisiana Tech Park
The next founders of a startup unicorn may be on a stage pitching their business this Thanksgiving weekend in New Orleans.
Applications are open until Sept. 30 for the BizTech Challenge, an entrepreneurial competition for students attending Historically Black Colleges and Universities. The winning team could earn up to $10,000 and expert mentorship.
Calvin Mills Jr., a serial tech entrepreneur and chairman of the board at Nexus Louisiana, is proud of how the BizTech Challenge highlights the entrepreneurship of HBCU students. “It shines a light on very smart, very talented individuals at HBCUs in Louisiana who come together to create dynamic products and ideas,” he says.
What Exactly Is the BizTech Challenge?
BizTech Challenge, developed by Nexus Louisiana, gives HBCU students the opportunity to validate their business idea and build a real business — and maybe even win some cash.
From those who apply, five teams will be selected to pitch their business in front of a live audience and a panel of expert judges for a chance at up to $10,000. Finalists will receive mentorship, coaching, and a travel stipend for their trip to the event. Everyone who submits a pitch will get expert feedback on their business.
“You have to take the first step and go for it,” Mills says. “Sign up and see what it’s about. I think you’ll be very surprised and be motivated to succeed. We want people to see the talent at HBCUs and the support that Nexus Louisiana gives to help make these ideas a reality.”
What to Expect
The BizTech Challenge attracts talent like Rason Irvin, a 19-year-old junior at Southern University who has competed twice.
Irvin completed software development and project management internships at Uber, Disney and Apple. Now he’s interning as a software engineer at Uber again while he completes his studies in computer science and plans to graduate next spring.
“What I like about the BizTech Challenge is that it gives me the opportunity to take ideas I’ve put down in my notebook or iPad and see if I can flesh them out, run with them, and turn them into reality,” Irvin says. “It also is fun to associate with like-minded individuals at the top of their game.”
Mills has some advice for teams honing their pitches: “Have confidence in your work. If you’re going to present, no matter what you’re presenting, have confidence in it. If you don’t believe in the product or idea, that is going to come across.” He remembers one BizTech Challenge team from Southern who created a warming cup for hot beverages. The team had an engaging presentation, as well as a prototype that judges could hold in their hands: “You need something that people can relate to.”
A warmer cup of coffee is just the beginning of the big ideas coming out of the BizTech Challenge. In 2019, Irvin’s team came in second pitching a magnetic piston engine that could retrofit public transportation systems. The winning team hailed from Grambling State University with their business model for a mobile application, called MiEye, that alerts and monitors homeowners of structural risks and damages in real-time.
Irvin is convinced he’s ready to take that final step. “This year, we’re going to be first,” he says. “I’m already starting to get a team together.” His project will likely focus on cryptocurrency and financial education.
Cybersecurity Will Be a Hot Topic
From cryptocurrency to green energy, expect the cutting edge from BizTech Challenge pitches.
One particularly appealing area this year is cybersecurity. Why? Grambling State, whose teams have won the last two BizTech Challenges, was the first institution in Louisiana to offer a bachelor of science degree in cybersecurity. It’s an expertise increasingly in demand. Many organizations, from local governments to global financial institutions, have struggled to protect their customers’ data or their IT infrastructure from hackers. In May, the Biden administration even issued executive orders to bolster the federal government’s cybersecurity.
“Whether you are a gig worker, a one-employee company or a 100-employee small business, everyone needs an understanding of cybersecurity,” Mills says. “Cybersecurity is being highlighted on a global scale, and the president of the United States has put it on the forefront.”
Why BizTech Challenge Matters to Calvin Mills Jr.
As a kid, Mills was inspired to pursue higher education when he watched the Bayou Classic, the legendary annual football game between Grambling State and Southern. He went on to study computer science and business at Southern. A former championship college football player turned award-winning serial tech entrepreneur, Mills is proof of the entrepreneurial prowess of HBCU students.
Indeed, he started CMS Technology, his first business, while he was still in school. The IT support company has been around for more than 20 years and works with customers ranging from local municipalities and small businesses (both in Louisiana and across the nation) all the way up to the Department of Defense. The Department of Homeland Security even recognized his company after Hurricane Katrina for its outstanding work.
Three years ago, Mills started a software training company, SLT Technology, which provides certified training for people who want to pursue IT careers. The company has a partnership with tech giant Oracle. Currently, Mills is working on a software development company just months away from launching its first application. He plans to grow the business and eventually take it public.
Mills knows that the BizTech Challenge has inspired HBCU students and the broader community to follow in the footsteps of entrepreneurs. He believes it will continue to do so, enabling them to build better businesses and technology.
“This is our way to showcase HBCU talent on the biggest stage Thanksgiving weekend in New Orleans,” Mills says. So when tens of thousands gather to watch Grambling and Southern play, they have the opportunity to see the best of the community off the field, too.