The founders of the Arkansas’s Governor’s Cup knew they were on to something – and that has proven itself out as the competition is entering its 20th year!
The competition originated with the Arkansas Small Business Technology Development Center (ASBTDC), a long-time partner of Arkansas Capital Corporation (ACC). ASBTDC is a university-based economic development resource, with centers located on seven campuses throughout Arkansas. The centers then and today serve any Arkansan who wants to learn more about business creation, financing, marketing, management, and operations to start or grow a business.
In 1999, the ASBTDC hosted a business plan competition for both clients and college students to offer a real-world experience in testing their business ideas. They would also discover if they had the moxie for entrepreneurship. Although the competition was small and with few awards, it was a hit.
As a long-time partner with the ASBTDC, ACC saw the competition had potential to be a true and unique entrepreneurial education opportunity for Arkansans and the state’s economic development efforts. But the ASBTDC was concerned about its ability to continue it, given that it exists to provide one-on-one service and support to current / future business owners and entrepreneurs year-round. And, as a government entity, it would be limited in its ability to raise the funding needed for awards and other costs.
By coincidence, ACC had just formed a 501(c)(3) corporation under the Arkansas Capital Corporation Group’s umbrella – the Capital Resource Corporation (CRC). Its purpose would be to cultivate projects that would promote entrepreneurial education and development in Arkansas.
The competition would be a perfect fit for ACC and its new nonprofit. Staff approached the ASBTDC about taking it on, committing to the administrative and program resources necessary to make it a grand, attention-getting, entrepreneur-celebrating, statewide annual event, complete with a significant all-cash prize pool. ACC also committed to build sponsor support for the event. The ASBTDC agreed.
ACC staff went to work to assure its board of directors that absorbing the risk of taking on the competition would pay off and greatly benefiting the state. Staff collaborated with representatives of the ASBTDC, colleges and universities, and public- and private sector business leaders, all of whom pledged to support the competition.
The purpose of the competition would be to:
The “Governor’s Award for Entrepreneurial Development” competition was launched in 2001. ACC funded the $63,000 cash prize pool; funding from other sponsors made the awards and other competition expenses possible – students would not have to pay a fee to compete. (That is still true today). The competition was a success way beyond everyone’s expectations and all agreed it would become an annual event.
As the interest and participation in the competition grew, so did the expenses. Luckily, for the competition and for ACC, the success of these early years piqued the interest of the Donald W. Reynolds Foundation.
ACC had approached the Reynolds Foundation in 2002 with a grant proposal for the competition. The foundation was interested, but asked ACC to resubmit it – with a twist. It was to include funding for ACC to set up the same state competition for the foundation’s other home footprint states, Nevada and Oklahoma. ACC got to work on recruiting in these states, ultimately selecting i2E in Oklahoma and the Nevada Center for Entrepreneurship and Technology (NCET) as its partners.
All the work by ACC, NCET, and i2E paid off. The foundation agreed to underwrite a competition in all three states by providing for a significant cash prize pool for each of them. The foundation designated ACC to provide oversight and management of the grant.
With the grant came two caveats: ACC would ensure the competitions maintained an educational purpose – to give college students a real-world, rigorous entrepreneurship education experience. The students would not be burdened with a requirement to start the businesses in order to compete or win awards. The second was that ACC, i2E, and NCET must raise the dollars needed for all other competition expenses. The foundation believed the states’ businesses should also invest in the entrepreneurial talent and ideas in their colleges and universities.
The Nevada and Oklahoma state competitions began in 2004 in the same spring semester timeline as Arkansas’s event. Each had a new name – the “Donald W. Reynolds Governor’s Cup Collegiate Business Plan Competition.” And, as it was in Arkansas in 2001, the first competition in Nevada and Oklahoma were huge successes.
Internally, in 2005, ACC renamed its 501(c)(3) affiliate from the CRC to the Arkansas Economic Acceleration Foundation (AEAF) to better reflect its initiatives in entrepreneurship education and its unique boost to the state’s economic development efforts. In 2006, ACC and AEAF took another step in the direction of entrepreneurial education by launching the Youth Entrepreneur Showcase (Y.E.S.) for Arkansas business plan competition for Arkansas students in grades 5-8.
In 2007, the Reynolds Foundation boosted its investment into the state competition with more funding for ACC to establish a new competition, one that would bring the top two undergraduate and graduate division winners of the state competitions together with an additional cash prize pool. The “Donald W. Reynolds Tri-State Collegiate Business Plan Competition” was launched in 2008 in the foundation’s home town – Las Vegas – and would continue for a decade.
The visionary behind all of ACC’s entrepreneur education efforts was its CEO, Sam Walls, Jr. In 2013, the Reynolds Foundation chose to recognize him with a five-year, $50,000 contribution to establish the C. Sam Walls Entrepreneur Educator Award. The award would honor two college educators who show exemplary leadership in promoting entrepreneurial education on their campuses. Each winner would receive a $2,500 cash prize along with $2,500 awarded to their respective academic institutions for use in furthering entrepreneurial education. The first awards were presented in 2014. Ten entrepreneur educators were honored through the final awards presentation in 2018.
Halfway into the second decade of the Governor’s Cup, the Reynolds Foundation announced it would be ceasing operations in accordance with the wishes of Mr. Reynolds, who did not intend for the foundation to exist in perpetuity. By this time, the foundation had invested nearly $2.2 million into the Governor’s Cup and Tri-State competitions. Because of ACC’s careful spending and high standards of management, it was able to stretch the foundation’s dollars for two years beyond the original end date of the grant. The final Governor’s Cup and Tri-State competitions named for Mr. Reynolds were held in 2017.
As the word got out regarding the search for a new title sponsor, ACC got a call from the competition’s long-time, $10,000 Innovation Division sponsor, Delta Plastics of Little Rock. By September 2017, all the pieces were in place for a big announcement – Delta Plastics would succeed the Reynolds Foundation as the new title sponsor. This news was enthusiastically received by the colleges and universities, the press, and other competition sponsors.
In the announcement, Dhu Thompson, owner and chairman of Delta Plastics, said, “We love the Governor’s Cup. It’s a perfect fit for our company. Delta Plastics’ core values are excellence, integrity, discipline, collaboration, innovation, and sustainability. These values are also hallmarks of the Governor’s Cup that we’ve observed over the years, both through the work of the student teams, the faculty advisers, and the collegiate institutions, as well as commitment of the staff of Arkansas Capital in its management of the competition.”
Delta Plastics CEO Sean Whiteley added, “Besides our company’s financial support, we’ve had several people from our team who have served as volunteer judges for the competition. This gave us the great opportunity to interact directly with Arkansas’s incredible collegiate entrepreneurial talent. The Governor’s Cup is unique in our state’s economic development in that it showcases our future entrepreneurs and lets them discover that we have the resources here in Arkansas to start and grow successful businesses.”
Delta Plastics was also the title sponsor for 2019, the same year Mr. Thompson sold the company. Now with the DMTH Group, Mr. Thompson, is continuing his generous support for the competition as the 2020 Title Sponsor.
The Governor’s Cup is indeed an institution in the entrepreneurial and economic development for Arkansas. For students, their competition experiences honed their educational and professional talents to develop comprehensive business plans. A number of Arkansas companies can trace their roots to the Governor’s Cup. Students who did not advance in the competition, or who did not proceed with their business ideas, report a better appreciation for the entrepreneurial process and have applied what they learned in their professional careers at businesses throughout the state and the country.
“As a private charitable foundation, you always want to see your grant and money well managed. But what really makes you smile, and your eyes to light up, is to see what you set out to do … the mission behind the dollars … fully realized and even exceeding your expectations. But, the Governor’s Cup? Mission accomplished.”
Steve Anderson, President, Donald W. Reynolds Foundation
“I look forward to playing a part in future years and seeing the Governor’s Cup competition continue its great mission … helping to build the future of Arkansas through these dynamic leaders of tomorrow.”
The Honorable Asa Hutchinson, Governor of Arkansas