When COVID-19 derailed its annual in-person pitch competition for high school students last year, the University of Delaware Horn Entrepreneurship’s Diamond Challenge adapted to help students build their dream businesses virtually.
Created in 2012, the Diamond Challenge is a top-rated high school entrepreneurship competition offering $100,000 in prizes and resources to teens worldwide. It’s free to students since the university, philanthropists and corporate sponsors cover the costs. The Diamond Challenge invites high school students to create teams of two to four people, recruit an adult advisor, and come up with a business or social-venture concept.
Sury Gupta, from Middletown, Delaware, participated in the Diamond Challenge in 2015. Although he didn’t make it to the semifinals, he did get his first exposure to the world of entrepreneurship. His team created a platform that would help students easily share notes. He learned how to create a business plan, make a pitch deck and network with inspiring speakers like Hazel Jennings, a founding member of Instagram’s content team.
Gupta applied his experience to his current startup, 360VR Technology, which uses 3D modeling, intensive building analysis and machine learning to give first responders in-depth information about buildings during an emergency such as a fire or active shooter attack.
One of the biggest problems first responders experience is not knowing what is inside of buildings during an emergency. With the 360VR Technology, first responders can view building models and critical information like water piping locations, sprinkler systems and flammable gas storage on a website before they enter. The goal is to help first responders make informed, rapid decisions. Gupta’s team is working with first responders across the United States to pilot the software.
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Gupta has continued his involvement in entrepreneur competitions, winning more than $150,000 for his venture. Recently, his team was inducted into the Capital Factory and MassChallenge accelerators in Austin, Texas. Gupta says the Diamond Challenge “gave me a great foundation for entrepreneurship —- from figuring out how to validate problems and craft a solution, to being able to pitch that solution.”
The yearlong program starts accepting applications in August, and participants gain access to a toolkit that includes sample pitch decks from some of the world’s biggest brands, such as Airbnb, and examples of past Challenge winners. They also take part in peer-to-peer mentoring and connect with a global network that includes virtual meetups. In February, teams pitch live and virtually to global panels of judges. In March, judges choose semifinalists, and the experience culminates in a weeklong summit in April, where the top 10% of teams compete for prizes.
Prior to COVID-19, the three-day summit was in person, and students would travel from around the world to attend. Now, the summit is a virtual experience that includes breakout rooms, one-on-one meetings with community leaders, keynote speakers, semifinal team pitches and an awards ceremony.
Prizes at the summit include $250 for all semifinal teams, plus a first-place prize of $8,000, a second-place prize of $4,000 and a third-place prize of $2,000 for each of two competition tracks, in business and social innovation. This new virtual approach has allowed for an increase in reach and impact by removing the financial and geographic barriers of an in-person model. During Covid-19 last year, the program had a 9% increase in submissions and worked with 5,082 students in 32 states and 55 countries, which resulted in the creation of 765 new businesses and social ventures.
While successful ventures emerge from the Diamond Challenge, the primary goal is experiential learning. “If Diamond Challenge participants come out of this program learning how to leverage their entrepreneurial mindsets to make the world a better place,” says Rachel Strauss, program coordinator at Horn Entrepreneurship, “that’s the ultimate win.”