Nuru wins People’s Choice Award at Global Social Entrepreneurship Competition

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University of Washington Foster School’s Global Social Entrepreneurship Competition is underway this week and 11 semi-finalist teams are competing for a chance to win over judges and beat out other innovative business ideas to combat global poverty.

At a trade show this week, the People’s Choice Award went to a team with an idea called “Nuru Light: a Solution to Africa’s Lighting Crisis” which provides affordable, renewable, clean lighting to replace kerosene in households. One of the team members traveled outside of Rwanda for the first time in his life to pitch this business idea along with a medical student from Massachusetts Medical School.

Winners will announced at tonight’s GSEC Award’s Ceremony which will also feature keynote speaker Bill Gates, Sr.

Good luck to the 11 teams and 5 finalist teams – part of a record-breaking number of applicants who chose to solve poverty with business innovations.

Foster students consult for Brazilian restaurant in Seattle: part 3

In this installment of our video series following student business consultants from the Foster School, the UW Business and Economic Development Center team members discuss the biggest challenges they face in improving the bottom line of a small Brazilian restaurant. This is the third in the series on Foster Unplugged where you can follow the five-member student team assigned to help Tempero do Brasil, a restaurant at 5628 University Way Northeast. Check back to follow more of the student team’s efforts as the winter quarter class progresses (under Student Life blog category).

Jeff Becker

Jeff’s early flair for business launches start-ups

Jeff Becker (BA 2003) has come a long way since selling Laffy Taffy from his middle school locker during class breaks. In 2009, for the second year in a row, his company Kotis was on the Puget Sound Business Journal’s 100 Fastest Growing Private Companies list, jumping from 29th to 21st place.

His flair for business made him an early competitor in the consumer economy. Not only was there the taffy initiative, but Jeff and his brother bought a used hotdog machine and started selling concessions at the elementary school baseball field.

“It was in my blood, running these businesses,” he said.

Following that passion (and his dad’s footsteps), Jeff attended the business school at UW. With his eye for capitalizing on what people wanted, it wasn’t long before he recognized new business opportunities among his college peers. In his freshman year, the organizers of his fraternity’s fall dance needed someone to make T-shirts, and, as an “overly active freshman,” Jeff put his hand up. He figured his mother, who ran a tennis store that sold custom apparel for a country club, would help him. The next year a buddy’s girlfriend approached Jeff to make cool custom T-shirts for her sorority. Jeff said that T-shirt job was where the roots of Kotis first germinated.

Then he had a failure: One of his T-shirt customers was unhappy with a design and sent the T-shirts back. The customer then introduced him to Nic Thomassen, telling him “Nic is the designer you should have used.” The customer was right, and Jeff had found his first partner. Together they decided to name their fledgling company after a Greek word meaning “the act of creating.” Jeff and Nic, both fraternity members, decided they were “the Greeks who create” and adopted the name Kotis.

Most students would be happy running one company. But Jeff’s entrepreneurial acumen continued to develop. When he took John Castle’s class Creating a Company, he inspired  his team to collaborate with Stevens Pass, The Ram, and Helly Hansen to create huSKIbus. This project was the highest grossing revenue the class ever had and held the title for five years.

“You form a team, build an idea, write a business plan, and actually ask people for money,” he said. “I think it should be mandatory in the business school.”

Jeff entered both huSKIbus and Kotis in annual Business Plan Competition run by Foster’s Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship, making it to the sweet sixteen with each company. He received great feedback from the judges on his business plans, but Jeff eventually learned he probably would never win. “My business wasn’t sexy enough.”

He didn’t let that slow him down, but after graduation he did take some time off to backpack around Europe. At one point, Jeff thought he’d move to San Francisco and become an investment banker. But he and partners Nic and James Upchurch were still making money with Kotis, and he realized his best business opportunity was right in front of him. So he and the others decided to go for it. Soon, their company had graduated from a little fraternity room, to a small office in Nic’s uncle’s basement, and then to offices in Lynnwood and Seattle and 36 employees – 25 percent of which are Foster alumni or students.

Jeff remembers the quarter he created Kotis, huSKIbus, took 20 credits, was his fraternity’s social chair, coached little league baseball, and carried a 3.9 GPA as “the craziest quarter by far” in his college career.

“My roommate and I, for ten weeks in a row, there was always someone up at four in the morning, every single day…and not partying, doing work.”