For two decades, business plan competition delivering results

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by Andy Perrine (’86)

Venture capitalist Don Rainey ('82), together with Russell "Rusty" Shepard ('86), established an endowment that generates more than $25,000 annually in competition scholarships. 

SUMMARY: Since its inception, the Rainey-Shepard Business Plan Competition has afforded nearly 600 students in the College of Business the chance to win scholarships. Former contestant Brett Danielson (’18) attests to the impact the competition had on his career as an entrepreneur.

The beating heart of JMU’s College of Business curriculum is a 12-credit-hour course that integrates finance, management, marketing and operations known as COB 300, which students take immediately following formal acceptance into the college their junior year. The course places students in cross-disciplinary teams and tasks them with integrating material from the four classes and developing a viable business plan.

The course looms large. Nearly without exception, students fear the rigors of COB 300. Also nearly without exception, the college’s alumni praise what they learned in the course. 

Some two decades ago, successful venture capitalist Don Rainey (’82) proposed a formal business plan competition, which would invite students with the best business plans created in COB 300 to compete for scholarships. Since its inception, nearly 600 students have participated in the Rainey-Shepard Business Plan Competition thanks to the generosity of Rainey and Russell “Rusty” Shepard (’86), who funded the endowment that generates more than $25,000 annually in competition scholarships. 

Russell ”Rusty” Shepard (’86) at the business plan competition

On the 20th anniversary of the competition last fall, Rainey chatted via Zoom with several of the alumni who look back fondly on this formative experience.

“I talked to a bunch of competition alumni, and it’s very moving and meaningful to me when they talk about the impact and that it really did prepare them,” Rainey said. “Many have said to me that was a highlight of their experience in the College of Business. And I said, ‘Well, you know, clearly that’s far more than we would have ever hoped for.’”  

Brett Danielson (’18), founder and CEO of BarTrack Inc., a global hospitality technology company, was among the alumni on the call with Rainey.

“The competition made me realize how much I love creating and solving problems, and how I’m going to put my all into it,” Danielson said. “Going through that process really makes you think differently and put us in a situation that we otherwise wouldn’t have been. And who knows, without the business plan competition, I could definitively say my life would be completely different.

“I definitely view JMU as one of the biggest influences on my life, and the business plan competition is right there with it,” he said. 

Only the best student business plans from COB 300 are eligible for the Rainey-Shepard competition.

For Rainey and Shepard, the business plan competition endowment was intentionally designed to focus the minds of the competitors.

“The moment I hope for is that in 10, 15 or 20 years, they’re standing outside a boardroom, and they have to go in and convince people of their ideas, the quality of their work, the precision of their thinking,” Rainey said. “There’s big money on the line, and they’ve already experienced that because of the business plan competition. And so, the monetary component of the business plan competition isn’t life-changing for anyone, but it’s important.”

Danielson said of the prize money, “The opportunity to win a scholarship, for us, was really important. I think it mattered to every single person on the team. You know, all of us have student debt. So, it was a big deal for us to compete on a level where there was some real reward for us if we did something good. It was a great experience.”

Rainey said many business plan competition alumni are now decades into their careers and have gone on to achieve great things. “And it’s wonderful to talk to them too,” he said, “to see that they remember it, and that they, in many cases, treasure it and feel it helped propel them.”


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Published: Friday, December 16, 2022

Last Updated: Thursday, January 4, 2024

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