When arriving in Blacksburg from afar, it’s often easy to see business opportunities. Beloved restaurants and venues from home that haven’t yet come to Blacksburg proffer prime opportunities. So when eight international students from Virginia Tech’s Language and Culture Institute were given a class assignment that thrust them into the mindset of entrepreneurs, the ideas came easily.

“I came up with my idea long before I was given the assignment,” said one of the students, Bowen “Josh” Fan. “I had the idea to start a hot pot restaurant the first semester I came to Virginia Tech.”

The students are part of the institute’s AdvantageVT, a program for undergraduate and graduate students seeking additional English language support as they begin their academic journey at Virginia Tech. Through targeted English and academic preparation courses, Advantage VT provides a structured space for international students to learn and practice English for business, science, and engineering settings while they take credit-bearing math and writing courses on campus.

In pursuit of becoming more comfortable with English, these Language and Culture Institute (LCI) students got a taste of entrepreneurship that changed how many of them think about their future. Now, when these classmates are asked what their career aspirations are, “entrepreneur” is a recurring answer.

The assignment

LCI instructor Mary Freday was looking for ways to connect her students with campus resources when she discovered the Apex Center for Entrepreneurship. Housed in the Pamplin College of Business, the center serves students from across all colleges and institutes at Virginia Tech. She decided to introduce the Apex Center’s programs to her class — especially those studying business.

Through mentorship, startup competitions, a community co-working space, and more, the Apex Center helps aspiring entrepreneurs tackle any phase of the new-venture-development process. Between 2021 and 2022, the center helped more than 500 students from 112 majors gain momentum for their business concepts and awarded equity-free grants of more than $21,000 in business funding.

One of the ways the center encourages “trying out” entrepreneurship among students is through KickStart VT events, where students share their business concepts, vie for seed funding, and receive feedback from business experts. For Freday, the KickStart competition presented an opportunity beyond what was advertised. Because her students need to practice English in the context of business, what could be a better practice than making an elevator pitch for a startup business plan?

“Inspiring and empowering students to turn their passion, purpose, and ideas into action is what we’re all about,” said Sean Collins, director of the Startup Hokies program portfolio at the Apex Center. “Mobilizing students to take action and then providing them real-time feedback is what differentiates student experiences in our programs from classes and other types of more passive learning environments.”

To enter the KickStart competition, students submit a three-minute video describing an idea for a product or service, its viability, and their implementation plan. From these submissions, Apex judges review the entries. Students with video submissions that meet the application criteria are then invited to compete for cash prizes at an in-person event.

For Freday’s students, getting selected for the in-person competition was not the goal. Rather, the important thing for them was simply to create a three-minute business pitch in their second language — and to do so with the appropriate grammar, pronunciation, and vocabulary. 

“I didn’t know what would happen,” Freday said. “Sure, I sort of hoped they’d be advanced to the competition, but I would have been proud of them all for just making the videos. It was great practice. It wasn’t easy.”

The event

Freday recalled working late one night in a computer lab on campus when she got an email from the Apex Center. When she read it, she screamed — and immediately had to reassure surrounding colleagues that all was well. The email revealed that all eight of her students had been selected to advance to the next round.

The next day in class, she shared the exciting news but emphasized that continuing the process was not an expectation. Submitting the entry video was the only requirement for the assignment. The decision to compete — to pitch their business ideas in front of a roomful of people and a panel of business experts — was entirely theirs.

All eight students chose to go for it. They were nervous. They were inexperienced. They were still learning the vocabulary, but they were ready and willing to try. The students had eight days from learning they had been accepted to doing the live pitch. On Feb. 22, the students joined five other teams from various majors in the Apex Center for the in-person competition.

The first LCI team — Jie Pan, Rui “Matt” Ma, and Minggeng “Jackson” Lu — pitched their idea for an Asian-style karaoke room. The second team, composed of students Zhenkui “Stan” Li, and Jiwoo Kim, pitched their idea for a family-friendly, ever-changing escape room. Finally, Bowen “Josh” Fan, Yuzhuo “Leo” Zhang, and Fu-yi “Eason” Chou pitched their idea for a hot pot restaurant that involved a communal, at-the-table soup-making experience.

After all the pitches, the audiences voted for those that were most viable, most worthy of funding, and most likable. Zhenkui and Jiwoo’s escape room idea captured the audience’s imagination, and the team won the audience choice award.

The teammates said they were completely surprised by the award but getting to claim the big check was a fun experience. Zhenkui added that he was grateful to the panelists for the feedback and advice they provided for their business idea. For him, this feedback sparked some ideas and made the venture seem more feasible than he had first assumed.

“The LCI students were fearless and displayed a real penchant for action. It was awesome to see the audience of fellow students rally around the LCI pitches and ultimately award the escape room concept with funding,” Collins said.

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