It’s not easy being an entrepreneur, notes Elizabeth Carter ’85, adjunct professor of Management at Bryant University and executive director of the Rhode Island Business Competition. It’s a calling that tests you to your utmost, strains your resources — financial, mental, and emotional — and can consume your every waking moment. "It's not just a side hustle or even a nine-to-five, it's something you're thinking about and working on constantly," Carter states.
When she says starting your own business is an uphill battle, Carter, the founder and owner of international executive search firm Carter Consultants and Executive, business, and career coaching and corporate training firm Beth Carter Enterprises, speaks from experience. “It takes blood sweat and tears. I joke that there are some days you think of firing yourself,” she admits.
But sometimes a helping hand can make things a little easier. Since 2001, the Rhode Island Business Competition has awarded cash and prizes valued at $2.9 million to aspiring and fledgling entrepreneurs from across the Ocean State and become an important resource, open to all, for individuals and groups looking to bring new ideas into the world. Along the way, it’s helped to grow a start-up community that fuels economic expansion.
“We’re here to provide a foundation,” says Carter, who has held the executive director title since 2019. “Not only to for people to start their business but also to continue to grow them.”
Some of the world’s most successful companies, including Uber and Airbnb, were once start-ups, Carter points out. But, in many ways, those are the exceptions: Many startups fail within the first few years. The Rhode Island Business Competition aims to give new entrepreneurs what they need to be success stories instead of statistics.
The ethos of the RI Business Competition, says Carter, is that we better ourselves through practice and experience — and they provide opportunities for the founders of new businesses to test the waters. “You can learn so much in a class — all of the different aspects of a business plan or investor deck, or how to understand the numbers, or the fundamentals of marketing. But then we’re here to push you to take it to another level,” she notes.
Their annual competition, held in April and open to those 18 and older, challenges aspiring entrepreneurs, new businesses, and early-stage companies to outline the problem or issue they want to address, share their business ideas, and explain why their proposed offering is better than others, key elements that all entrepreneurs must work through.
The judges then invite semi-finalists to submit complete investor decks and evaluate the commercial potential of the applicants’ business, the innovative nature and technical feasibility of their idea, and the likelihood that the business described in the pitch deck can achieve a sustainable, competitive advantage.
After several rounds of deliberation, a final winner is chosen. The winner and 2-3 finalists receive a cash award and prizes, including accounting and legal services and co-working space — which will help them grow even further.
A community that welcomes all
Successful startups can have an important ripple effect, says Carter, by creating jobs across the state and helping to grow the economy.
Rhode Island has a rich history of entrepreneurship, Carter notes, and part of the Rhode Island Business Competition’s mission involves bringing the state’s growing entrepreneurship community together. Supported by a range of sponsors that include private businesses, investors, foundations, colleges and universities — including “Pillar” level sponsor Bryant University — public entities, nonprofit organizations, and former competitors, the competition’s commitment to strengthening Rhode Island is one of its founding principles and can even be seen in the rules of their contests: All applicants must agree to establish substantial operations in Rhode Island to be considered for prizes as a finalist or winner.
In addition to their competitions, the organization also provides educational workshops covering everything from pitch deck development to knowing your customers, mentoring opportunities, networking events, a co-working space, and a variety of other resources.
Carter points to a November 16 pitch competition the organization will be hosting at Venture Café in Providence as an example of how the Rhode Island Business Competition builds community.
The competitors won’t just be making their case to a panel of judges from the Rhode Island business community — they’ll also be sharing them with a general audience of other entrepreneurs and investors, sparking conversations, partnerships, and mutual insights.
There’s a space for entrepreneurship in every market and field of endeavor, Carter notes, and the RI Business Competition welcomes everyone. Past winners include entrepreneurs working in areas ranging from agriculture to biotechnology to construction to the food and drink industry. 2023 winner Charles Johnson, CEO of Nhuad Custom Controllers, focused on developing bespoke videogame controllers for gamers with disabilities. Melissa Bowley, the 2021 winner, created Flourish Care, a platform that puts women in control of their family’s wellness by facilitating spending during pregnancy on evidence-based goods and services.
Entrepreneurship is a difficult business but being part of that community has its rewards, notes Carter, who lights up when she mentions the above companies and founders — and others that the RI Business Competition has helped. “When I see young — and sometimes not so young because we have no age limit — entrepreneurs flourish, it makes me feel good inside,” she admits.
You can find more information about the Rhode Island Business Competition here. The application process for the 2024 competition opens on January 4, 2024, and closes on March 25.