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Darla Moore School of Business

  • Banner Image of The Proving Ground logo, UofSC's entrepreneurial challenge

UofSC alumni, current students vie for seed money for their new businesses

Four teams recently competed in the Moore School’s virtual The Proving Ground entrepreneurial competition and won more than $40,000 in total seed money for their innovative business concepts. The teams were comprised of USC undergraduates, graduate students and recent alumni who presented their concepts to a panel of seasoned entrepreneurs in a “Shark Tank”-like event.

The Caliber Discovery category is open to USC students, undergraduate or graduate, and alumni who graduated in the past five years. Entrants in the Maxient Innovation category must be current undergraduate students at South Carolina. In both categories, the concepts submitted may be for any business within any industry, ideally addressing an unmet need or solving an existing problem. 

Moore School alumna Sowmya Pelluru (’16 operations and supply chain and marketing) won first place in the Caliber Discovery category with her business, manakii, an online, socially and sustainably conscious women's underwear company that includes a philanthropic mission. 

“I came up with the idea of manakii when I had moved to Boston, Massachusetts, and forgot all of my underwear in North Carolina,” Pelluru said. “That sent me down a journey of research and volunteering, which eventually led me to create manakii. Sustainability woven throughout the brand was a given, with my passion for eco-friendly businesses and fashion. The social impact piece comes from the need in shelters and a clear direction to use women’s purchasing power to uplift other women in need. Like all great entrepreneurs, I set out to solve a problem so that is what the concept and all of manakii’s pillars are based on.”

When she was a Moore School student, Pelluru said she wrote her first business plan for manakii in one of her undergraduate courses.

“At the Moore School, I learned a lot about creating a business from the group up through my supply chain degree but also about how to cultivate a community of inspiring and ambitious people through my formative business fraternity, Delta Sigma Pi,” Pelluru said. “In addition, professors like [management clinical assistant professor Laura] Lambdin taught us to think big and introduced many students to the different paths that would be ahead of them post-graduation. That made a big difference for me and in the way I thought about my own five-year plan.”

With her winnings from The Proving Ground, Pelluru said she plans on investing the money to expand her product line.

“We’ve seen a lot of interest, and there is expansive growth ahead, but that takes inventory,” Pelluru said. “I am very excited to put the infusion of capital to work and plan on using the data to help us guide the decisions made for the $17,500 winnings.”

Moore School alumna Brecken Hobbs (’19 management and marketing) won second place in the Caliber Discovery category with her business idea, Just in Time Prevention, a widespread preventative drug misuse program tailored specifically for college students to present an informative and interactive online program to build drug awareness and reduce drug induced incidents in universities.

“In 2018, John Edward Toohey, a 21-year-old computer science major at the University of South Carolina, lost his life to a drug overdose.  He had so much life ahead of him,” she said. “[Toohey] was a beloved son, brother and friend to many. He was also my first love and the passion behind this project, Just in Time Prevention. [Toohey’s] story has given me the strength to become educated, raise awareness, and most importantly, help others. It has given me the drive to bring light out of this darkness. I can only hope his story will inspire others, too.”

Hobbs said she plans on using her runner-up winnings toward perfecting her overall course development to ensure campus-specific resources, interactive aspects, professional content and systematic updates. 

For the current student Maxient Innovation category, Moore School student Mariclare McEntire (’21 finance and management) placed first overall for her business concept, Cheffie, which she said is simply a modified ghost kitchen business model that utilizes commercial kitchens for food preparation, but it does not have the same overhead, wait staff or seating area for customers as regular restaurants. The food goes directly from the kitchen to the customer via delivery service; Cheffie focuses on providing a menu dedicated to individuals with dietary restrictions. 

“Growing up with a sister who has dietary restrictions, I never thought much of it until recently when I developed several food intolerances of my own,” McEntire said. “Having to completely change my diet and eliminate many of the foods that I loved was very challenging and required a lot of discipline. This experience ignited my passion for being able to provide access to more food options for people with dietary restrictions.”

After conducting extensive industry research and proper due diligence, McEnitre was able to craft the Cheffie “solution.” She also conducted a full analysis of the food industry to be able to understand the current issues, the projections, consumer trends/behaviors and the impact from the COVID-19 pandemic. From there, she looked at where the industry was headed and how she could capitalize on launching an innovative industry disruptor while the rest of the market was still recovering from the pandemic.   

“Cheffie is still in the early stages of development,” McEntire said. “Right now, I am working on building relationships with investors here on the East Coast, but I am already in discussions with potential investors on the West Coast who want to launch this business model in that area of the country first.”

With her winnings, McEntrire said she plans on using the money to begin communications with the appropriate investors and build strategic relationships to get her business started. She said she hopes to expand the business across the country in the future.

“I would love to see this company beginning in one region of the country, whether that is the Southeast or the West Coast, and expanding,” McEntire said. “With the closure of 110,000 restaurants due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the supply for ghost kitchens is abundant, and with the low-interest-rate environment, time is of the essence for this business to be able to capitalize on this opportunity to build a commercial real-estate presence. With the proper expansion schedule, this company has the ability to scale to a multi-million-dollar platform that would be ideal for an IPO.”

Winning second place in the Maxient Innovation category was senior Ashlea Brown (’21 chemical engineering) and Alexis Lewis (’21 chemical engineering) and their business Enviro. Brown said she came up with the idea for Enviro during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“We participated in a COVID-19 Research Challenge between Clemson and USC, and we decided we wanted our project to be sustainability focused, and I had noticed what an issue the [personal protective equipment] shortage was becoming,” Brown said. “N95 masks are the best at mitigating virus spread, and due to the polypropylene filters, we came to the conclusion that it could be a game-changing idea to produce masks from recycled materials.”

With their winnings, Brown said she and Lewis plan on developing a company website and to have prototypes of their EnviroMasks made so they can have a physical example to show companies that plan to collaborate or invest with them in the future.

Open to all current USC students and USC alumni from the past five years, The Proving Ground begins with 10 total teams between the two categories that are judged by seasoned entrepreneurs, faculty and past Proving Ground winners. For the second round, another panel of experts choose two teams for each category to compete in the final.

The Proving Ground is supported by Caliber Collision, America’s largest collision company, and Maxient, the software of choice for managing behavior records at universities across North America. 

-Claire McGrath

Challenge the conventional. Create the exceptional. No Limits.