Bianca Perry (left) just wanted to keep her hair tied back. A soccer player recruited to attend DePaul University, the budding entrepreneur got a brilliant idea. Why not make a headband that stayed in place, but looked good doing it?

Perry began making the two-tone fabric bands while still in high school. But now the DePaul undergraduate business student is the proud owner of an established brand, thousands of dollars in sales and retail buzz that even the Olson twins would die for.

There are plenty of young people with homemade fashion projects, so what makes Perry’ venture different? Her company, BBands, created with business partner and fellow DePaul student Jessica Weaver, was one of six finalists in the 2014 Launch DePaul new venture competition.

Contest Is the Real Prize

Though BBands came in third during the awards ceremony hosted by DePaul’s Coleman Entrepreneurship Center on May 21, Perry said she’d already won the minute she entered.

“We didn’t lose, we only gained by doing this,” Perry said of the annual contest. “To send out your business pitch and have it critiqued by professionals and investors and to have them offer you suggestions and guidance on how to make your business better…it’s an invaluable experience.”

For nearly 10 years Launch DePaul has given DePaul students and recent alumni the chance to pitch their business proposals to professional investors and established entrepreneurs. The contest offers cash rewards to finalists, and the top business proposal gets $5,000 in cash. PlanMatcher, an online health exchange founded by DePaul MBA candidate Christian Wells, won the top prize (read about Wells and PlanMatcher here; see. a list of all the Launch DePaul winners here).

The annual contest, open to undergraduate and graduate students and 2013 alumni from any DePaul college this year, is just one of the many events hosted by the Coleman Entrepreneurship Center, which seeks to advise, inspire and connect DePaul entrepreneurs with the greater Chicago business and start-up community. The center is an integral part of the Driehaus College of Business’s robust entrepreneurial ecosystem. Recently, DePaul’s undergraduate program in entrepreneurship was ranked among the 25 best in the nation by Entrepreneur magazine and The Princeton Review. 

Alumni Provide Priceless Advice

Launch DePaul contestants and judges say the contest itself is the real prize. Open to new ventures less than two years old, the contest gives budding entrepreneurs a way to dip their ideas into the business pool and see if they float. Contestants and judges say the insights provided by established entrepreneurs who evaluate the business pitches is priceless.

“Early in my career I was involved in competitions at different schools and I never really got any good feedback,” says Launch DePaul judge Greg Jaros (CDM ’86), a founder and CEO of Spare to Share, an online goods exchange. “I’ve been on the other side and I know what it’s like to want that feedback. That’s why I became a judge. I wanted to help other students get the feedback they needed to be successful.”

Jaros said it was great to see the creativity of  the ideas from all the students who entered the competition. He was part of the pre-selection committee that chose the six finalists from 40 submissions.  

Sponsored by Chicago-based accounting firm Kutchins Robbins & Diamond Ltd., as well as QUEsocial and Elance, Launch DePaul offers students access to bankers, entrepreneurs, professors and financial advisors through various workshops, networking events and information sessions.

The contest culminates in a “Shark Tank”-like session where the finalists have just five minutes to convince a panel of judges that their company deserves the prize money. Audience members also are allowed to vote for the best pitch.

VIP judges this year were: Michael Arndt, editor of Crain’s Chicago Business; John Hoesley, managing director of Silicon Valley Bank; Suzanne Reade, president of Chicago ArchAngels; and Shawn Riegsecker, founder and CEO of Centro.

Hoesley said he admired the contestants’ professionalism, enthusiasm and willingness to jump into entrepreneurship.

“It’s insane,” Hoesley said. “You’re really jumping off a cliff and hoping someone throws you a parachute on the way down. For the entrepreneur, it’s like David and Goliath, and these students are meeting the challenge. My hat’s off to them.”

As for Perry, she and Weaver have big plans to expand BBands into retail stores. But keeping in line with the Vincentian values taught at DePaul, the partners say they are after more than just sales.

“We want to encourage and inspire women and girls to be confident as they wear their BBands,” Weaver said.​