PGS Capstone Showcase: A Business Plan Competition That is (Literally) Changing the World
Capstone features both MBA and MPA students. Although this piece is focused more on MBA, a piece more dedicated to the journey of MPA candidates will soon follow. To learn more about our integrated Capstone courses, click here for more on the MBA Capstone and here for MPA Capstone.
The lights dim. The audience hushes. Energy and anticipation thrum through the room. Five students, wearing jeans, button-down shirts and clip-on microphones, walk out onto the stage. The lights come up. The students begin their pitch.
Business Plan Competitions and New Venture Competitions are a common part of today’s MBA programs. Teams of students develop, hone and present their ideas, vying for exposure and potential funding. Typically, the goal is to prove that one’s idea will deliver investors a positive return on investment. After all, ROI is the definition of a successful venture.
Presidio Graduate School, however, is unique from other MBA programs, including the fact that it’s integrated with our singular sustainable MPA program. And this pitch competition—the Showcase for the Capstone course—is unlike many other business plan competitions that exist across the nation. At PGS, a successful venture is not only financially viable; it must also be a sustainable endeavor that will have a positive impact on the world.
One example Capstone venture presented at 2016 Showcase is Beer Flour. “No worries,” the team says quickly. “There is no alcohol content and, no, it does not taste like beer!” The name Beer Flour stems from the process of making the flour: rescuing and upcycling craft microbreweries’ spent grain after the first step in the beer-making process. By introducing the spent grain into the food system, breweries reduce the amount that ends up in waste streams. Furthermore, the byproduct of the beer-making process is a “super grain” that is extremely rich in both protein and fiber, and also low in carbohydrates and sugar. The flour has a nutty flavor and can supplement or even be a substitute for traditional flours.
The idea stemmed from PGS student Daniel Kurzrock’s existing company, ReGrained, that sells granola bars made from beer grain. “I came into Capstone with an idea for how my company ReGrained could expand,” Kurzrock says, “and I’m confident that our groundwork developing Beer Flour will be instrumental moving forward.” He and his teammates, who call themselves “ReSourcery,” first joined forces in the Products and Services course at Presidio Graduate School. “In the Capstone course, we added two new team members to take things to the next level in our final semester,” Kurzrock continues. “Capstone was a great opportunity within an academic setting to rally a team of brilliant minds together, committed to laying it all on the triple bottom line.”
The triple bottom line is a key foundational concept at Presidio Graduate School. It is a business framework that does not simply account for financial gains and losses, but also considers social and environmental impacts. One might say that the Capstone Showcase at Presidio Graduate School is a triple bottom line Business Plan Competition. And it is not merely a classroom exercise; the companies developed in the Capstone course take this triple bottom line model out into the real business world. For example, the ReGrained website states: “Our whole model, from our products to our partners down to our packaging, strives for sustainability wherever possible.”
Learning Outcomes that Matter
Beau Giannini had just returned to the Bay Area from China four years ago when a fortuitous meeting introduced him to Presidio Graduate School. He is a successful international business leader fluent in the language of U.S./China supply-chain management. In 1999, Giannini founded Freeborders, a software outsourcing company, and four years later he and his family moved to Shanghai. “We really wanted the adventure,” he says, noting that he and his wife Cooksie dreamed of raising their children in the same way they had both grown up: bilingual, traveling extensively, and living abroad. In Shanghai, Giannini founded Sinomark, a company that delivers complete product solutions to small- and mid-sized businesses, helping bridge the cultural divide between the East and the West.
Giannini is also the founder of Yogavive, a global organic foods company. He conceived, executed and scaled this organic-certified, non-GMO, gluten-free, kosher, and vegan snack-food company, selling into both the natural and conventional grocery markets. Yogavive products are currently distributed in more than 4,000 stores in the United States.
Now, at the “tail end” of his PhD in tech management, Giannini is writing his dissertation on the growth of the organic food industry in China. He explains that China is the world’s largest producer of food; because there is “such a high demand” in the Western world for organic food, this creates “a lot of pressure on China to clean up its supply chain.” Giannini’s extensive industry knowledge naturally dovetailed with the educational goals of PGS, where students study how principles of industrial ecology and life-cycle assessment can be applied in the design of sustainable supply chains.
After an initial conversation with leaders at Presidio Graduate School, Giannini immediately felt a connection. Moreover, he could tell that his professional experience was highly valued by the PGS community. Regarding Yogavive, Giannini recalls: “One of my colleagues said, you are addressing issues that are so core to what Presidio Graduate School is about. There are a lot of sustainability issues in China as their economy continues to grow.” Giannini agreed to teach the Capstone course at PGS for one semester—and loved it so much he has continued to do so ever since. He is now Director of the Capstone Program and Capstone Professor of Entrepreneurship.
“Teaching at PGS provides me an opportunity to stay current and understand how students think about important topics in the world,” Giannini explains. “Yes, I’m able to impart information to them, but I also learn a lot from my interactions with bright, ambitious and socially responsible students looking to improve the way business is being done.” Giannini notes that PGS students identify opportunities for problems that haven’t yet become critical—but for which they see a growing need. “Every class is stimulating and enlightening,” he says, “especially given the diversity of students and their propensity for questioning the status quo.” Giannini is inspired by the energy and passion that PGS students bring to their studies, ideas, research and projects—both inside and outside the classroom.
Presidio Graduate School’s Capstone Program is distinctive for its central focus on sustainability. “A lot of MBA programs have a final interdisciplinary course, where everything you’ve learned over the last three semesters is brought together,” Giannini notes. “Our Capstone Program culminates in a new business venture plan, and ultimately there is a competition where all the teams compete and the three prevailing ones present their ideas at Showcase. The new business ideas all have a sustainable element to the core business plan, which is really unique to our curriculum.”
Julie Noblitt was part of the “NeuWorld Plastics” Capstone team, which also presented at the 2016 Showcase. Its project was creating a compostable alternative to the petroleum-based plastic films that are used in single-serve packets for high-moisture foods such as ketchup, peanut butter, and energy gels. NewWorld Plastics shared a staggering statistic: “Today, the equivalent of one garbage truck full of plastic leaks into the oceans every minute!” According to the team’s research, if current trends continue, by the year 2050 there will be more plastic in the ocean than fish. “Capstone gave our team a great deal of freedom to be creative and go where we needed to with our project,” says Noblitt. “At the same time, we got just enough input to keep us on the rails and make sure we were going down the right path to achieve our goals. That’s not an easy line to walk, but the Capstone instructors were terrific at providing that valuable balance.”
Teaching the Capstone course requires being able to guide students and knowing when to step back so they can practice working through problems on their own. “Capstone is a fast-paced class with a steep learning curve,” observes Giannini. Students must prepare before the semester even begins. “They are assigned to read Peter Thiel’s book Zero to One,” Giannini says. “They come into the first class debating the importance of competition and innovation.”
Additionally, ideas for culminating projects often hatch and develop in students’ minds for months leading up to the final-semester Capstone course. “One impressive aspect of this year’s Showcase was the fact that all three teams chosen had incubated their ideas in the previous semester’s Products and Services class,” shares Giannini. “This exemplifies the strength and cohesiveness of the PGS curriculum—the teams germinated their concepts in one class and then fully developed a business venture plan in the next class.”
Another unique facet about Presidio Graduate School’s Capstone Program is the emphasis on real-world knowledge. In this vein, PGS employs a hybrid learning model that fosters maximum efficiency and networking with faculty and classmates, combining the convenience of online learning with the energetic interaction of face-to-face learning. Every month during the semester, PGS students gather for “residency” which consists of concentrated classroom time for two to four days in San Francisco. Each residency, the Capstone class meets for one full day of in-person instruction, but class is much more than a traditional lecture-based environment. Indeed, at PGS class time includes breakout sessions, interactive presentations, and lively discussion.
As part of the Capstone course, students divide into teams of no more than five individuals and work together the entire semester on putting together a business plan from the ground up. Giannini remarks, “There are a lot of entrepreneurship classes at other MBA programs, but it is not typically a requirement for business plans to have a significant sustainable component.” PGS Capstone projects must be compelling from both a business and a sustainability standpoint. “Throughout the semester,” Giannini continues, “our student teams work on everything from validating their business plan, talking to potential customers, gathering data, developing financial models, coming up with a marketing plan, and more. As they are doing all of this work, they need real-life advice and help.”
“Real-life experience” is where the structure of the Capstone course really shines, Giannini believes. He explains, “With every residency, we bring in at least two professionals—people who have started businesses, run big divisions of businesses, are consultants of some sort—who have ‘war stories’ to tell about success and failure, about what it is like to go out there and start up an entrepreneurial venture.” These professional mentors talk to students about everything from idea generation to working with other organizations, from raising money to launching products. “The lineup of speakers were invaluable,” Noblitt says, “from entrepreneurs to venture capitalists to startup incubators. They candidly shared their first-hand experience and behind-the-scenes tips with us.”
Additionally, the Ray C. Anderson Circle at Presidio Graduate School—generously supported by the foundation of the legendary sustainability pioneer—is comprised of individuals from the business community who share their expertise with Presidio Graduate School as a whole. “These are people who make themselves available to all of the community, not just Capstone students—alumni and current students as well,” Giannini emphasizes. “Their role is to help and guide in a real-world sense, focused on issues large and small.”
This exceptional network of supportive mentors helps answer students’ questions and address their concerns. Importantly, they share their expertise not in a general hypothetical sense, but specifically as it relates to coursework and personal passions. “How do you successfully meld sustainability and business?” Giannini asks. “To many it appears to be a lofty goal—but if understood, it can be done very effectively.”
Where Innovation Thrives
Giannini believes that success comes from finding your community, finding your principles, and finding your people: those who share your driving principles. This is a key strength of Presidio Graduate School. “Our community is so incredibly special!” Giannini proudly says. “We are all so fortunate to be part of this self-identified group that is on the one hand incredibly diverse—our students are from all over the world, with all different types of experiences including engineers, health care professionals, non-profit and corporate managers, and even chefs and professional athletes—but on the other hand all share a common vision. They want to grow their leadership business skills and at the same time genuinely make the world a better place.”
Indeed, Presidio Graduate School students put their hands-on business skills to the test in the semester-long Capstone course, which nurtures innovation, collaboration, and resolve. Students drive ideas into reality via passionate belief systems. Capstone is also about the culmination of the students’ years of hard work at PGS. Daniel Kurzrock shares, “I’m left feeling grateful for what we accomplished together, and also proud of earning a spot on stage at Showcase. Every team in the class really did impressive work!”
In this graduation season of new beginnings, when asked what thoughts he would like to pass on to the business leaders of tomorrow, Giannini answers without hesitation. “Stay true to who you are,” he advises. “Understand who you are, and seek out your network.”
This network begins when a student enters Presidio Graduate School. It strengthens and expands during the Capstone course. And, importantly, this priceless network continues after the semester ends and graduates launch into the business world. “I am grateful for this experience and am confident that contacts I made in Capstone will prove to be very valuable to me in the years to come,” says Julie Noblitt.
“Capstone is a bit like running a marathon,” Giannini remarks. “Mentally, it’s taxing throughout the process, but so incredibly rewarding at the end. I love having a hand in making students feel as if they’ve pushed their limits and exceeded their expectations.” To be sure, the innovative Capstone course is a cornerstone of the Presidio Graduate School experience, ushering in new leaders for a new world.
Capstone features both MBA and MPA students. Although this piece is focused more on MBA, a piece more dedicated to the journey of MPA candidates will soon follow. To learn more about our integrated Capstone courses, click here for MBA and here for MPA.