Carol Reeves’ likely final run leading graduate students from the University of Arkansas through the Arkansas Governor’s Cup collegiate business-plan competition took a turn for the virtual when the coronavirus disrupted the world.
But lead her students she will, still, though the annual awards luncheon recognizing the winners and crowning pitch competition champions was cancelled. In place of the usual in-person presentations before judges, delivered in the weeks leading up to the event, finalists delivered oral presentations virtually. And in place of the planned April 9 shindig in downtown Little Rock recognizing participants and declaring champions, Arkansas Capital Corporation simply will announce the winners.
For Reeves, the force behind the UA’s emergence as the nation’s preeminent business-plan school since 2002, there’s disappointment students won’t receive the level of public recognition afforded by the annual luncheon, but “it would have been infinitely worse if they had to finish the year without competing.”
“I am very grateful to Arkansas Capital for finding a different way to hold the competition,” she said.
Reeves begins her semi-retirement next school year, phasing out as associate vice provost for entrepreneurship as she remains on faculty through the fall before riding a Fulbright grant to a six-month stint at the prestigious Vienna University of Economics and Business in Austria. After that, Reeves says it’s “TBD,” but with lots of hiking. This year’s competition will serve as one more potential springboard for her UA graduate teams onto the national and even global competition stages.
And her teams have fared well. Under Reeves’ guidance, UA teams of Walton Business College grad students have dominated the national collegiate business-plan scene for a decade. From 2009 to 2019, Arkansas tallied 29 wins in competitions and made the finals in 38 others. The closest competitor, the University of Louisville, won 12 competitions in that span and made 21 final rounds.
Reeves and her students consistently compete against teams from renowned institutions such as the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), Carnegie Mellon and more. The University of Texas at Austin, by way of contrast, won three competitions and made 10 final rounds in that same span. (Besting Texas, of course, is icing on the cake for many Arkansans whether you’re talking football, business plans or thumb wrasslin’.)
The competition at the Governor’s Cup helps prepare UA teams for what they’ll see on the national stage, and Reeves said expectations have only gone up.
“What it takes to do well has changed. And one thing that maybe people don’t understand is that it’s quite an undertaking. It takes a lot of work on students’ part.”
Colleges across the state have embraced the Governor’s Cup, and most two- and four-year schools in Arkansas now offer some sort of degree or certificate related to entrepreneurship.
This year, the undergraduate division even features a team from the Arkansas School for Math and Sciences in Hot Springs. Reeves said she’s seeing more STEM students involved in the competition, thanks in all likelihood to the state’s emphasis on STEM education and computer science in high schools. But she’s also seeing fewer graduate students as the nation experiences a decline in graduate business-school enrollment. This year, the UA is fielding three graduate teams in the competition. Most years, it’s been double that. Fewer MBA candidates, fewer teams.
According to a November report from the Graduate Management Admission Council, 73 percent of two-year MBA programs in the United States saw a decline in the number of applicants last year. Despite this national trend, the UA’s secret sauce — community — continues to produce.
Northwest Arkansas fosters a strong entrepreneurial spirit with support from private organizations like the Walton Family Foundation. And it sure doesn’t hurt being in such close proximity to multiple Fortune 500 firms including the world’s largest retailer, Walmart, not to mention the orbit of international companies that do business with them and have opened offices in the area.
“We’ve created an incredible community here,” Reeves said. “We’ve got past winning teams like Stan Zylowski and April Seggebruch of Movista coming back to mentor students. We’ve built such a strong mentor network, and they go out and advocate for us. We’ll host mentor weekends and fly in folks from across the U.S. and Canada where students and mentors create individual relationships.
“When I tell colleagues across the country about our network of mentors and how our former students come back to help, they call it our ‘unfair’ advantage.”