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HCC offers students chance to pitch business ideas

Restaurant and Catering IndustryArtRestaurantsDining and DrinkingMarketingNew Products

John Palasits envisions an electronic menu that would enable restaurant customers to place their orders when ready instead of summoning a waiter.

Rhyan Guidry foresees a personalized hairstyling studio that would teach patrons to do their own locks. And Justin Carmona is exploring opening a gym that would cater to patrons six days a week but reserve the seventh for high school teams' training.

The three were among 13 Howard Community College students seeking to create and market their business ventures in a three-to five-minute product-pitching competition called "Rocket Marketing," which was held at the school this month.

Kyle Frost, whose business idea is a gastropub called Crumble that would offer small meals, desserts and microbrews at night, won the $500 prize for first place; the $250 prize for second place went to Guidry for her Creathair studio.

For many of the students, the business ventures are part of an effort to prepare themselves to enter a workforce still reeling from the recession by launching their own companies rather than seeking jobs.

"I don't want to be stuck with a degree and all this knowledge and not really have a job once I graduate," said Guidry. "My father was a real estate agent, where the money was here one month and the next month it wasn't. I'm going to need something more stable than that."

HCC officials said about one-third of the students in the Rocket Marketing competition typically go on to the next phase of the program at the Center for Entrepreneurial & Business Excellence. There, students receive coaching as they work to start the businesses they pitched.

Betty Noble, director of CEBE, said that for now, instructors work with students on whether their ideas are doable and whether a different approach is needed. She said students compete in class to become eligible for the Rocket Marketing slots and that regardless of how unusual an idea might seem, instructors take steps to avoid stifling their creativity.

"The next step is to do a feasibility study," said Noble. "Then they get into the market analysis: Can you really get to break-even? How long will it take? Can you really make a profit? We really encourage students from all degree areas to take this."

Other HCC students who participated in Rocket Marketing included Cesar Maseda, whose camera shop venture would give customers 25-minute learning sessions and allow them to test any camera and accessory in the store.

Maseda said he has begun envisioning ways to outsell the competition, including prices that would be 15 percent below other retail stores and offering a 25 percent discount for students and companies.

Carmona said his gym venture, which he calls "The Gorilla Factory," could generate almost $1 million a year.

"There's been a real lack of performance gyms in the area," he said, "and there are no real programs that allow teams to practice in the offseason."

Some students pitched nonprofit ventures. Antonia Ramis Miguel, a painter for 25 years, offered plans for an art gallery that would provide display space and opportunities for new artists.

"I remember how difficult it was to enter the art market and to be accepted by a gallery to show your work," Miguel said. "The gallery is going to be offered for rent on a weekly basis, which is going to be more affordable for new artists to have shows. What happens with galleries we have now is that some of them are willing to rent their space, but for a whole month. That's too expensive for starving artists."

Noble said many students are taking advantage of shifts in technology and that Palasits' restaurant venture, which he calls "eMenu," is an example.

Palasits said his device would be similar to an iPad and would be placed on each table. Patrons would place their order on a touch screen and it would go directly to a monitor in the kitchen.

"It makes sure no one gets an order wrong, and if you want to have a refill on a drink, there's a command for that," he said. "If you want to request a check, there's a command for that. If you want to enlist the help of a waiter or waitress, there's a command for that."

Noble said it is important for the students to believe that they can take an idea and transform it into something tangible. She said dozens of members of the local business community regularly attend and that students often get jobs and internships from the program.

"Our hope is that someday, someone will get an investment, someone sitting there who will say, 'Hey, I really like your idea. Let's sit down and talk about how we might get this started,'" she said. "That hasn't happened yet, but we hope to raise the bar significantly so that at some point we will have investors there."

joseph.burris@baltsun.com

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