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May 5, 2014

Sometimes it takes a maverick or two

Alumni duo endows Business Plan Competition and engages students with competition and incentive

By Patricia May ('94M)

From Spring/Summer 2014 Madison magazine

Don Rainey ('82)

Perhaps it shouldn't be surprising that two maverick JMU students became the driving force behind what today has become the showcase for the College of Business's vaunted COB300 course—the annual Business Plan Competition. With world-wise business alumni judging six student teams competing for scholarships and awards each spring, the competition is a startup Don Rainey ('82) and Wayne Jackson ('85) built into a success over the last dozen years—long before Shark Tank or Donald Trump hit TV.

"I want to create something tomorrow that doesn't exist today." — Don Rainey

In its first year, Rainey lined up the pieces—leadership support in the college, private funding from alumni donors, a full slate of alumni to serve as judges (including himself), the operation, and scholarships and awards for the competitors. The next year Jackson joined him, and they've been involved as coordinators, judges or advisers every year since.

They took the ultimate step last spring and made financial commitments to permanently endow what is now called the annual Jackson-Rainey Business Plan Competition. Awards to students this year totaled $25,000.

Rite of passage

Tied to the intense 12-credit COB300 gateway course requiring student teams to create a business plan while learning the fundamentals of finance, management, marketing and operations, the competition has become a student rite of passage. It has also helped rank JMU's College of Business among the top 5 percent of undergraduate business schools in the nation. And yet the usual student things—grades, classes, studying, going to the library, tests—did not interest Rainey when he went to Madison. In true entrepreneurial fashion, he sought action. "I like the creative endeavor," says Rainey, who now serves on the JMU Board of Visitors. "I like to create something from nothing. That's what I want to get up every day and do. I want to create something tomorrow that doesn't exist today."

It took an independent study with business professor Joseph Kosnick for college to gel for Rainey. "I wrote a business plan for him. This was a life-changing experience for me. My GPA was 2.2. He gave me an A. This was my proudest grade in college."

As Jackson jokes, "Don and I probably competed for the lowest GPA." For him, shadowing a local developer who was building nearby Massanutten Resort provided the taste for achievement that entrepreneurs thrive on. Rainey and Jackson took their real-world experiences and ran.

The duo

Rainey became an international powerhouse in business management before jumping into venture capital. Today he is a general partner in Grotech Ventures and serves on the boards of its portfolio companies. With more than $1 billion under management, Grotech focuses on early stage information technology companies.

Jackson currently heads Sonatype Inc., creator of Maven and other technologies that are used by millions of software developers worldwide. It is his third venture-backed company, having taken startups Sourcefire and Riverbed Technologies through to sales of $2.7 billion and $1 billion respectively.

"I acquired skills over time, but it took me years, as opposed to having the great jump start they have here," Jackson says. "Even outside the business plan competition, the opportunity to integrate what is taught in business at JMU is an extraordinary innovation.

"I find it personally amazing that someone can get involved with an idea and change people's lives," he adds. While Jackson is reflecting on Sonatype's phenomenal impact on how software is developed around the world, Jackson might as well be talking about the business plan competition he and Rainey have done so much to create.

Exponential benefit

"I learned how to solve problems in a way that I never had before." — Jacqueline Cheff ('12)

Former student competitor and 2014 judge Katherine Ferguson ('04) says, "It's done amazing things for me. The impact has been exponential in my career." She is vice president of business development for Cooley LLP. This year she funded the competition's new Ferguson Top Female Leader Award, in keeping with the college's continuing wish to further enhance the competition.

EyeTraffic Media SEO Coordinator Jacqueline Cheff ('12) says, "I learned to think outside the box in creative ways that I had never before had the opportunity to do in school." Her team won first place in 2012. "I was challenged. I learned how to solve problems in a way that I never had before." That kind of testimonial resonates with Rainey, who is happy to help provide the kind of business skills he longed for as a student. "If they have the drive, we want to give them the tools."

Learn more about the 12th Annual Jackson-Rainey Business Plan Competition, including this year's business plans, student finalists and alumni judges at www.jmu.edu/news/cob/2014/04/01-jackson-rainey-business-plan-competition.shtml.