Rachael Fox found the seed of a $10,000 business pitch buried in mud and pond water.
The McDaniel junior is an environmental studies major. In the fall semester, a female expert in her field visited the classroom, but while they were doing lab work, the expert revealed one of her frustrations to Rachael.
Because it’s so difficult to find muck boots and waders in women’s sizes, she is often slowed down by too-big boots that get stuck in the mud and waders that bunch out and let in water.
Fox was the grand prize winner of the fourth annual Innovation Challenge at McDaniel College, where student groups pitch their business ideas to a panel of four professional judges. As a result of her win, she took home $10,000 of capital, which she will use to begin prototypes for her company Fox Boots.
“Shoes are just a basic necessity. And if you don't have that in the field, you definitely will feel uncomfortable or you might feel at a disadvantage,” Fox said.
The Fox Boots mission statement is to "Build a women’s boot company that creates a reliable and comfortable product that assists any woman in her outdoor needs."
Fox competed against four other finalists narrowed down from a pool of 18. The contestants had just seven minutes to present their ideas to the judges, though many spent weeks or even years refining their ideas.
Abilitize took home the second-place prize and $3,000. Their company was pitched as an ad agency paired with design consulting that will “empower businesses to engage people with disabilities.”
Nolan Wolf, Jeremy Crowley, Thomas Reido and Aidan Finnerty made up the Abilitize team.
Wolf said that businesses potentially miss out on a market of 56 million Americans with disabilities when their products, advertisements and physical businesses aren’t accessible.
“The real value we look to provide is giving people … access to consumer goods that they desperately want to use.”
The audience favorite was Money Mind, an app dreamed up by Marissa Funke and Renie Tsomos, two graduating seniors majoring in accounting economics and business administration.
The app is designed to teach financial literacy skills in a way that’s relateable and less intimidating to their Gen Z peers as they go out into the job market and begin paying down student loans. They left with a $2,000 prize.
The judges had eight minutes to ask questions after each presentation and applied tough love to help the groups bring their pitches to the next level.
The judges included those who returned from previous years and new faces, but all brought spades of business experience. Jason Stambaugh, Guy Sheetz, Debra Cancro and Funlayo Alabi sat on the judges panel. Sheetz and Stambaugh are McDaniel alumni.
Jonathan Weetman, McDaniel College entrepreneur in residence, served as a mentor to the contestants as they worked on their ideas and applications.
“There's so many more McDaniel graduates who are going to find themselves running companies and being entrepreneurs than probably ever before,” he said. “If nothing else, this competition gives the entire campus a sense that it can be done.”
Overall the presenters showed a level of preparation that brought the judge’s decision down to the thinnest of margins, he said.
Fox appeared in chest waders and boots to give her presentation. She pointed out how the waders were the smallest size she could find and still bunched over her boots and left a sizable gap at the top for water and debris to fall in.
“These products are nothing new. What is new is the sizing and proportion of the product,” she said.
About 29% of women in STEM — science, technology, engineering and math — fields make use of field work boots, she said.
Looking at a popular outdoor company’s website, there were only two choices of chest waders for women — one-sixth of the options available for men.
Of the boots available, the site didn’t give the same basic colors of boots available in men’s sizes —almost all of the options were bright pink, camo or a combination of the two.
“I’m the person who started this company because this is my future,” Fox said.
She is interested in working with animal agriculture and fields in the intersection of human health and food.
In marketing the Fox Boots products, she hopes to partner with colleges and universities as well as companies that employ many women in STEM fields.
The judges encouraged her to continue refining her financial plan and consider plans for how to store inventory as she starts out.