Some of the most influential San Diego business leaders of today and tomorrow gathered on one screen for a virtual event centered on entrepreneurship.

The Fowler Business Concept Challenge brought together senior execs from some of San Diego’s biggest companies with budding entrepreneurs in a virtual event on Oct. 30. The event was sponsored by the University of San Diego School of Business’ Innovation and Entrepreneurship Catalyzer program, which encourages undergraduate and graduate student entrepreneurs to explore how their ideas can positively impact the world.

Rangapriya (Priya) Kannan, who is the founder and director of the Entrepreneurship and Innovation Catalyzer at USD, moderated the discussion and emphasized how important it is to elevate ideas that find solutions to problems in San Diego and beyond.

The event was framed by 16 students pitching their business ideas to a panel of executives and topped off with awards and virtual networking. The scholarship was funded by Ron and Alexis Fowler who generously provided $45,000 in prize money for the competition, with a grand prize of $15,000 for first place.

Shared Insights

In a session called, “Entrepreneurial Action across Industries in COVID Times,” C-suite executives shared insights into how they’ve led their companies the past few months and what trends are here to stay beyond the pandemic.

When it comes to innovating solutions that have impacted the San Diego community, Caroline Winn, the CEO of SDG&E, spoke to how her company’s mission extends beyond the product and services they provide.

“When you think about innovation and reinvention, it’s not new to the energy industry,” Winn said. “We’ve been constantly looking for new ways to provide services and for us it’s not just about keeping the lights on — it’s about building a better community.”

“Our purpose is so much bigger than just delivering energy everyday,” Winn said.

Mike Fasulo, the president and COO of Sony Electronics shared insights into solutions and trends he has noticed across industries during the pandemic.

“For students and entrepreneurs — data and analytics rules,” Fasulo said. The amount of insights and trends we can find from data and analytics is beyond what we’ve ever seen before.”

Fasulo also took the opportunity to speak directly to student entrepreneurs to tell them to never “accept no for an answer, today or any day.”

“Resilience, patience and sensitivity is required,” Fasulo said of doing business these days. “We are all in this together, but we are not all in the same boat so sensitivity is important.”

Moves Faster

For Ron Coughlin, CEO of Petco, he said that he’s noticed everything moves faster during the pandemic and this has ignited innovation within companies to meet customers’ changing needs. Rather than debating solutions in a boardroom for months like companies did before the pandemic, he reflected on how making fast decisions with an entrepreneurial mindset has benefited Petco.

On a similar note, Susan Mallory shared her observation about the importance of a company’s ability to pivot during these tough times. As an experienced business woman and member of the USD Board of Trustees, Mallory shared that entrepreneurial thinking is defined as “the ability to see things differently than the rest of the world, and take both financial and personal risk to achieve success.”

Innovating for Impact

This sentiment stuck with Harmony Prado, a first-year undergraduate student at USD who took home the top prize of $15,000 for her idea called Harmony's Room — an online safe space and digital platform to connect teenage girls with wellness resources and professional mental health help.

“As a young startup founder, innovating for impact is extremely important to me, and this competition gave me the platform to speak about the importance of mental health,” Prado said. “From the weekly consultations, training sessions, and pitching to business executives, I was challenged to enhance my venture strategies, critical and analytical thinking, and improve on my pitch presentation skills.”

Last year’s first place winner, Carl Dumesle, said that being a part of this competition two years in a row presented new challenges. Dumesle, a graduate student at the USD School of Business, took home two scholarships totaling $8,500 for his venture called Anapryze which provides financial resources and credit options to international people entering the U.S.

He said that being a part of this competition and winning last year’s scholarship allowed him to grow his business venture “in a way that wouldn't have been possible otherwise.”

“Winning last year helped me validate my idea and made me believe that I could make it happen,” Dumesle said. “As an entrepreneur, you have a different mindset after you've been able to prove to yourself (through the action and words of others), that the problem you seek to solve actually exists, and that you have an attractive way of solving it.”