The Blue Ocean Entrepreneurship Competition: Past, Present, & Future

2015–2016 Blue Ocean Competition Committee w/ Professor Renee Mauborgne

2015–2016 Blue Ocean Competition Committee w/ Professor Renee Mauborgne

It’s been more than 6 years since I started the Blue Ocean Entrepreneurship Competition, which is now a nationwide, virtual competition named after the international bestseller Blue Ocean Strategy where teams of high school students pitch original business ideas and learn about what it takes to start a business from scratch.

We recently welcomed the new student committee for the 2019–2020 competition, who will be critical in driving marketing and content creation for the upcoming year. The competition has been around long enough now that none of the new committee members know anyone from the original organizing teams, but I wanted them to understand where we came from because I think that’s critical to understanding where we’re going.

The remainder of this post is an expanded version of the history I shared with them. I hope you find it interesting and informative. If you’re interested in supporting the competition, I would love to chat. Please feel free to connect with me on LinkedIn and mention Blue Ocean in your message.

Before I continue, there’s many people I need to thank, because without them, none of this would have been possible. Thank you to my dad, Nestor Benavides, for your unwavering support of myself and the competition; Mrs. Taylor for believing in me and for keeping us on track all of these years; Professors W Chan Kim & Renee Mauborgne for your inspiration, sponsorship, and mentorship; Kasia Duda for coordinating the support of the Blue Ocean Global Network; Zunaira Munir for covering the competition in the early days; Claire Hafets, my principal at Centennial High School, for giving us a free venue as we got started up; Paul Brooks and Doug Wendt for being champions of the competition from the beginning; Steve Woerner for helping us secure ongoing sponsorship; Brian Jordan for handling our nonprofit’s finances; Ted Dacko for taking on the role of Executive Director and overseeing day-to-day operations; all of the student organizers over the years for making this competition your own and pushing to make it bigger and better; volunteers and judges from our events for dedicating your time; and the students who have participated over the years for making this competition what it is today.

Year 1: 2013–2014

It started when I was a junior at Centennial High School in Ellicott City, MD, frustrated by the lack of entrepreneurial opportunities available to me. The business courses offered at my school were in marketing, accounting, and general business, but they didn’t really give students the chance to be creative. I was also a part of my local Future Business Leaders of America (FBLA) chapter, which was similarly uninspired, with most of the competitions coming in the form of multiple choice tests.

That’s where I saw an opportunity to make business fun and exciting by creating an entrepreneurial competition run by and for high school students. At the time, I had recently read the Blue Ocean Strategy book, and I felt like the creative thinking it inspired was exactly what was missing from my business classes and extracurricular activities. I had also just heard about the Red C Challenge, a pitch competition for students at Calvert Hall College High School in Baltimore. I wanted to bring a similar competition to a wider range of students incorporating elements of Blue Ocean Strategy, and the Blue Ocean Competition was born.

To get things up and running, I recruited a few of my friends who were involved in FBLA at Centennial to join the organizing committee as well as our FBLA Advisor, Mrs. Taylor, to be our faculty sponsor. With only a few months to plan and execute the competition, we had a lot to do. We pulled together a few thousand dollars in sponsorship from local businesses to fund the pitch prizes and operating costs, recruited entrepreneurs and other businesspeople as judges, and marketed the event to high schools in my home county of Howard County, Maryland. 

A few weeks before the competition, I found an email address for Professor W Chan Kim, one of the co-authors of Blue Ocean Strategy, online and decided to send him a message. I thought he would be curious to hear what we were up to, but I was also scared that we could get in trouble for using the Blue Ocean name without permission. I wrote something up quickly and didn’t really expect a response, but a few days later I had a message in my inbox from Professor Kim. He was thrilled that high school students were learning about Blue Ocean Strategy, as the book was primarily intended for MBAs and executives, and was incredibly supportive of what we were doing. With his co-author, Professor Renee Mauborgne, they sent us signed copies of the book for the winning teams and a letter that we read to all of the participants on their behalf.

That first year, we fielded 15 teams from 6 local high schools and held the event at my high school. Although it was small, we saw great interest from the students that participated, our sponsor companies, and the business professionals we recruited as judges, and we knew we were onto something. Some people thought I was joking when I called the event the first annual Blue Ocean Competition, but I knew we were just getting started.

Year 2: 2014–2015

My senior year, we dreamed bigger, expanding the competition to the entire state of Maryland, and we saw the size of the competition grow by a factor of 4, with students coming from across the state to share their ideas and meet like-minded students. I led the team along with my friend Jamie, and we worked tirelessly to make year 2 bigger and better than year 1. At one point, we were struggling to improve our registration numbers and felt like teachers were just deleting the emails we were sending. So, over the winter break, we stuffed more than 100 packets of information, flyers, and resources and mailed them to business teachers at schools around the state. Our hypothesis was that they would at least open the packets, and hopefully share the materials with their students. When the students came back to school, our numbers soared, and the team was thrilled. 

We put together some of our first promotional content that year, which you can check out below.

At the event that year, we were joined by Blue Ocean co-author Professor Renee Mauborgne, who came down from New York to give a keynote address and meet the student participants. She also brought a team to document the competition, and you can find their recap below.

Year 3: 2015–2016

Going off to college, I wanted to focusing on adjusting to my freshman year, so I took a step back from the competition. Pranav and Andrew, two team members that were a year below me, took on the task of expanding the competition to Virginia, Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Washington D.C., and Delaware. Their team created a Wolf of Wall Street promo video, which is still my favorite video we’ve ever released.

We had 71 teams participate that year and were again lucky to be joined by Professor Mauborgne for competition day. I was really proud of their ability to grow the competition, and it gave me confidence that the competition could continue to expand with new student leadership. If you’re interested, check out the recap of our third competition below.

Later that year, I gave a talk about Blue Ocean Strategy to a group of high school students at Stanford, and a few of them were interested in bringing the competition to Silicon Valley. I was surprised nothing like this existed there at the high school level, but it presented another opportunity to grow the competition.

Year 4: 2016–2017

Year 4 was logistically very difficult, as we hosted 3 competitions — one in Maryland at Johns Hopkins University, one at Flex’s campus in Silicon Valley, and a virtual competition for any student who couldn’t make it to either of the two locations but still wanted to participate. Utsa, Julie, and Prateek ran the Maryland and virtual competitions, and Anushka led the Silicon Valley event. Despite the logistical difficulties, our fourth competition was the largest to date, and we saw teams from both coasts and several other states. 

Given our expansion into other parts of the country, we also established a 501c3 nonprofit, Blue Ocean Student Entrepreneurs Corp., to provide more of a structure around the competition and eliminate the dependency on my high school, which is where we had been previously storing our funds. We established a Board of Directors to oversee and support the competition, and they’ve been an invaluable resource ever since.

While the two physical competitions continued to see increasing numbers of students, it seemed that we were starting to reach a plateau in terms of the size of the events, and this strategy was tough to scale since we needed to find new students to take on the daunting task of raising sponsorship, marketing, and executing a competition in their home state in order to grow. In contrast, the virtual competition had received far more registrations than we had anticipated despite very little marketing. That was the lightbulb moment for us.

Images from Year 4. Left: Maryland Committee Leaders with Nestor Benavides and Professor Renee Mauborgne. Middle: Participants at the Maryland competition at Johns Hopkins University. Right: One of the winning teams with judges at the Silicon Valley competition in Milpitas, CA.

Year 5: 2017–2018

Year 5 was a big shift in the competition’s trajectory, and it wasn’t easy. After much deliberation, we decided to shift the model to a fully virtual competition, forgoing the charm and experience of our in-person pitch competitions. It wasn’t easy to abandon a model that had brought us from 30 students in Howard County to hundreds of students across the nation, but our goal has always been to reach thousands of students with the competition, and we felt like a fully virtual competition had the best chance of getting us there. 

Led by Utsa, Julie, and Sid in Maryland and Anushka in California, we hosted the first virtual competition, and the results were incredible. We had by far the most number of teams in the competition’s history, and students hailing from 20 states participated. We learned a lot about how to execute this virtual event and made plenty of mistakes along the way, but we knew we were moving in the right direction.

Year 6: 2018–2019

This past year, we brought in Ted Dacko as Executive Director to continue to grow the competition, and he did just that. We leveraged more technology in the registration process and in our marketing, took a different approach by reaching principals and teachers directly, and saw record registration numbers, with students from 26 states participating in the event. We offered prizes to the schools that had the most teams in addition to the winners voted on by the judges, and we saw great engagement across the country, from Chino Hills, CA to Ann Arbor, MI to Boca Raton, FL.

Students at Ruben S. Ayala High School in Chino Hills, CA receiving their $1k prize check with Computer Science Teacher Derek Arnell.

Students at Ruben S. Ayala High School in Chino Hills, CA receiving their $1k prize check with Computer Science Teacher Derek Arnell.

Professor Mauborgne presenting a $1k prize to Business Teacher Ilene Littman and her students at Ward Melville High School in East Setauket, New York.

Professor Mauborgne presenting a $1k prize to Business Teacher Ilene Littman and her students at Ward Melville High School in East Setauket, New York.

Year 7: 2019–2020

For the last several years, our goal has been to get to 1,000 teams, and I think that this is the year we can achieve that. We have what’s shaping up to be a very strong student committee, a new influx of board members, and another year of experience under our belt organizing the fully virtual competition with awareness at schools across the country. It certainly won’t be easy, but very little about the last 6 years has been, whether it be raising sponsorship, marketing to schools across the state or across the country, or managing the logistics of a fully virtual event.

Year 8 and Beyond

I gave a brief speech at the competition during my senior year at the awards ceremony, and I said something along the lines of “I hope that I can come back in 50 years and see that the Blue Ocean Competition is still growing strong.” It was a bold statement for our second year in operation, but I thought that would be a pretty cool legacy to leave.

We’re still lightyears away from the 50 year mark, but I hope to see the competition to grow both in terms of financial resources and participants to the point where we can re-introduce the in-person aspect of the competition. Maybe that’s a final pitch event where we can fly the top teams in from around the country to pitch live to an audience and panel of judges. It would also be great to set up a seed fund to help the winning teams actually turn their ideas into reality. All of these ideas would require substantially more funding than we have today, but they’re not out out of the realm of possibility.

I’m excited about the future of the competition, and can’t wait to see where the team takes it from here!

— Nicholas Benavides, Blue Ocean Entrepreneurship Competition Founder

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