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Before the start of the 2020 Edward L. Kaplan, ’71, New Venture Challenge (NVC), MBA student Alexandra Koys noticed that some of her classmates were worried. The COVID-19 pandemic had moved all University of Chicago Spring Quarter classes online, including NVC. It wasn’t as big of a leap to imagine how lecture classes could transition to remote learning, but NVC is known for being so time- and meeting-intensive that many students who take it reduce their course load. Could this class actually work online?

In the NVC—co-taught for the past decade by Mark Tebbe, Steven Kaplan, and Ellen Rudnick—students collaborate on business plans and business model development before presenting their plans to investors. Last year, students often put in more than 30 hours each week; at the end of the class, Booth and outside investors poured $850,000 into their businesses.

How can you form and pitch a solid business plan when you can’t meet in person? Many students asked Tebbe if they should drop the class. Don’t drop, he told them; we’ll give you the best experience possible. “And we did,” he says now.

Full Time student Alexandra Koys
MBA student Alexandra Koys

The Best New Venture Challenge Ever

Koys, who is pursuing a concentration in entrepreneurship and poised to graduate later this year, said she didn’t have many concerns about whether NVC would work online. The format was an obstacle, but the pandemic created obstacles across all of life. NVC would adapt, she believed.

“We all miss the ability to have our co-workers or classmates around us,” Koys said. “But I think the classroom setting translates very well to group videoconferences.”

Translate it did. Often working 50 to 70 hours each week, Koys and her group won second place in the NVC. Their business, Lighten, helps bereaved families plan personalized celebrations for deceased loved ones. Koys’s team had heard the pain of mourning families who weren’t able to gather in-person during the pandemic and wanted to help. Over the course of the quarter, the Lighten team pushed ahead with a digital-first product.

“We launched a service that helps families plan celebrations of life and memorial services in a virtual environment,” Koys said. “There were customers looking for a way to still celebrate their loved ones with their family and friends in spite of the challenges of social distancing and travel restrictions.”

Koys’s team wasn’t alone in their success. Tebbe said this was the most money ever earned by a New Venture Challenge class—$1 million of investments went to the top 11 teams.

“The results speak for themselves,” Tebbe said. “We had the best New Venture Challenge ever.”

Meeting the Challenge of the Online Classroom

How could such an intense class work online? With a lot of planning, Tebbe said.

Tebbe, who has founded several technology companies, took transitioning to the remote learning environment as a tech challenge. He created a five-page protocol of rules to teach and learn by. He figured out the intricacies of Zoom so presenting teams appeared together on screen with uniform backdrops. The professors also secured speakers from across the country who wouldn’t have otherwise come to Chicago for a class (in another of Koys’s classes, Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot and actress Geena Davis spoke via video).

There were drawbacks, Tebbe said, such as missing the energy of the classroom and not seeing anyone’s body language. Even so, he and the students found positives. “They’ll have better presentation skills. It’s one thing to hold people’s attention in person, but it’s much harder through a screen,” he said. This will serve them well as video meetings will likely continue after the pandemic. Many venture capitalists—like NVC’s investors—are now listening to business pitches over video.

The online format was challenging, Koys said, and forced students out of their comfort zones. But she sees that as a good thing, a way to know firsthand that you can overcome obstacles.

“You have a choice about how to respond to a challenge,” Koys said. “The companies and teams that say, ‘How can we adapt to this in a way that still allows us to achieve a meaningful experience?’ are the organizations that thrive. It's all about how you choose to look at that challenge.”

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