Jeremy Willet received some motivational words from his 8-year-old son Evans prior to attending Thursday night’s finals of the 2020 Carroll Biz Challenge.
Willet said Evans warned him if he returned home without the grand prize, he’d be letting down the Willets and their entire farming legacy. No pressure, but “Papa,” as Evans calls his dad, did the family proud.
Willet Family Farm is this year’s grand prize winner, which meant a $5,000 check and thousands more in additional services.
The Carroll Biz Challenge, in its ninth year, is sponsored by the Carroll County Chamber of Commerce. The competition is akin to the popular TV show “Shark Tank,” and local entrepreneurs pitch business ideas, make connections, get publicity, and compete for prizes.
Five Carroll entrepreneurs pitched their ideas ― Covalent Spirits, Dirigible Systems, RetroStrap, Together Studios, and Willet Family Farm ― Thursday evening to a panel of four judges on stage at Carroll Arts Center.
Willet said his Westminster-based farm, which he rebuilt last spring after a fire destroyed the more-than-a-century-old site in 2017, recently started inviting guests to make reservations, like an Airbnb does, and the feedback was very positive. People traveled from all around to visit the farm, which spans more than 200 acres, some for their first agricultural experience.
Willet said his family went to county officials and told them about the farm’s high demand. They also inquired about being compliant as a commercial camping business. Giving back to the community through agritourism is Willet’s goal, he said.
“Everyone else was incredible,” Willet said about the finals. “I was seriously shocked when we received the check. I seriously thought someone else was going to get it.”
Covalent Spirits, a distillery company owned by Drew Cockley and Jennifer Yang with plans to open in the Main Street community of Westminster, earned the people’s choice title and earned $1,000.
Willet was the fifth presenter during the finals, and told the judges the farm was bought several years ago before Willet had an opportunity to get it back into the family’s name. The 2017 fire wiped out the farmhouse, but Willet said watching his neighbors rally to help reestablish the farm gave him an idea.
Willet took advantage of a chance to travel to Africa and learn about sustainable agriculture from some native farmers.
Willet Family Farm produces fruits, vegetables, and poultry, made available on a pay-what-you-can basis. Willet said in the past year the farm has also welcomed more than 200 guests from nine different states and two different countries.
“Most of these are families, adults with young kids,” Willet told the judges. “[They] come to the farm because they want to collect eggs for the first time, they want to hold rabbits. They want to watch the horses in the pasture. They collect firewood for a camp fire, and they sleep under the stars.”
Jason Stambaugh, a local entrepreneur who helped launch Carroll Biz Challenge with Carroll County Chamber of Commerce President Mike McMullin, said he was impressed with the turnout for this year’s event amid the coronavirus pandemic.
“I am just super proud of every one of the finalists and the applicants for their bravery,” said Stambaugh, who shared host duties with attorney Jon Weetman.
“It takes incredible courage to start a business in a good year, and the fact that these folks are gearing up and having the courage to do that in this climate is just incredible.”
The 2020 Carroll Biz Challenge featured 29 applicants, which was narrowed to the five finalists. The proposed businesses must be a company that is or will be headquartered or principally located in Carroll County.
Dirigible Systems, led by Julius Knapp and Christopher Nallo, is a fog computing company designed to make it easier for users to access data and resources with smaller systems closer to where the applications are generating data. Fog computing is the concept of a network fabric that stretches from the outer edges of where data is created to where it will eventually be stored, bringing the data closer to users who are producing and consuming the data.
RetroStrap, created by Mount Airy resident Eric Wendler, is a retractable shoulder strap that can be put on almost any type of luggage item, briefcase, or sports bag to make it easier for them to be carried without the long bag straps getting in the way.
Jenna Shriver owns Together Studios, a female-focused co-work space and community that exists for creative entrepreneurs to have resources they need for their businesses.
The Carroll Biz Challenge competition is open to individuals and teams who are proposing a business or product idea that is not yet established. This includes, but may not be limited to, brand new ideas, budding start-up businesses, or businesses that launched or will launch in 2020.
Stambaugh said he’s proud of the county and its communities for refusing to allow the pandemic to get in the way of progress. He and the judges praised this year’s finalists for their diverse ideas.
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“It basically covered the gamut of the types of businesses that Carroll is starting,” Stambaugh said. “I’ve said that from the very beginning ... prior to this competition we really had no way of figuring out who they were.”