Wolff students bring food to raise funds
Wolffest may have had hundreds of students and an impressive fast-food menu, but it was not the standard eat-and-meet. Beyond the napkins and condiments, the festival is an exercise of entrepreneurial persistence and business expertise.
Since last semester, seniors enrolled in the Cyvia and Melvyn Wolff Center for Entrepreneurship at the C.T. Bauer College of Business have been rattling the Houston restaurant scene searching for donations and sponsorship for their booths, which will raise funds for WCE programs and scholarships.
“I tried to get my team to … sell the benefits,” said entrepreneurship senior Glenn Figeroa. “One thing you have is the philanthropic mission, which you can promote through logos and an online presence.”
Figeroa said securing monetary donations was the biggest challenge in the competition. Figeroa is one of eight seniors selected to lead as a team chief operating officer, and he was confident that his staff on Team Duality will win Wolffest attendees over with its fusion menu.
CEO Jennie Hemphill packed heat, bringing her family barbeque grill and all-female team, Blazing Saddles, which planned to burn the competition with its all-meat menu.
“When we first began, we had a training session on how to get sponsors and that prepared everybody,” Hemphill said.
She included that at some point, you just have to pick up the phone and start dialing.
“You get more confident as you go, and so more of the sponsors are coming in because the team is more confident in speaking to them.”
The training did not equip Figeroa and Hemphill for the surprises down the road. During the great sponsorship hunt, Hemphill discovered that a sponsor was endorsing another team. She and the other CEO tried to make a deal, but it failed; both teams lost the support of a big name.
Figeroa, who has more than seven years of experience and connections in the bar industry, could not have anticipated having two of his sponsors fall though because of medical emergencies.
“I thought that I had everything connected. I had all my ‘i’s dotted and what not, but then it all started crumbling,” Figeroa said.
Figeroa said every failure meant running back to the drawing board, which forced him to deviate from the original mission every time.
Since the clock is always ticking, many creative ideas didn’t make the schedule.
“We wanted to bring some sort of new aspect to Wolffest, and as the competition got closer and closer, some of those ideas were actually not as feasible,” said Cooguh CFO Johnathan Cohen-Kurzroc.
The main test is maintaining flexibility and a positive attitude, especially when the team is facing setbacks and rejection.
“In order to circumvent that (rejection), you start with thinking ‘yes.’ Yes, you’re going to get ‘no’s,” Figeroa said with a smile.
“You’re probably going to ten ‘no’s before you get a ‘yes.’ Just knowing that you’re going to go in with a higher likelihood of failing helps.”
Both students spoke about the impact of collective responsibility and leading with an open mind, which is important when one is managing a team of self-starters.
“Pretty much on my team we are all equal … I’m not going to be a micro-manager, and I told everybody that their ideas are valid,” Hemphill said. “I really haven’t had to strike any ideas down. Everyone has really put in their full effort in putting this together.”
The competition is intense, and each team is always working to raise the bar. The CEOs scheduled private rooms to discuss their business plans.
Figeroa said unfortunately, the center walls are paper-thin, and when you’re competing with your friends, it’s painful trying to keep your ideas bottled up.
Before executing their business plans, each CEO had to assemble a team. They first recruited seniors and then held the junior draft. The seniors were selected a month before the juniors entered the program.
“I couldn’t have picked a better group,” said Cooguh CEO Sammy Emerson. “They have made me look great.”
Emerson and Cohen-Kurzrock, who were on the same Wolffest team as juniors, said Cooguh has a diverse team dynamic.
“What makes our team different is that we all have different strengths … everybody compliments the next person,” Emerson said.
Figeroa admitted to doing a bit of social media surveillance before recruiting staff. He was interested in Houston natives with useful connections in the community, especially family members with ties to the restaurant industry.
Recruitment is part of the overall business strategy, as the people on a team can make or break your operations.
“The team I was on last year was terrible as far as communication. Everyone was mad at each other all the time,” said senior Bobby Jacobs.
Jacobs is on team Wolff Pack, which has multiple food donors so it can offer a different menu every day.
All the seniors in the program are returning participants from last year, so they came in with a bit of experience.
“We got to see a lot of successes and also some failures in some groups, and being able to incorporate that knowledge into this year is really what’s setting us apart,” Cohen-Kurzrock said.
Although Butler Plaza is where the main attraction took place, the journey has been the real learning experience.
“I’ve already learned so much through this process just by approaching people and trying to get sponsorship,” Emerson said. “A lot of things that you wouldn’t get just sitting in a classroom.”
The only thing students will not gain through Wolffest is a legal trade name, Emerson said jokingly.
During the months prior to the event, the students must handle marketing, accounting and development without help from the WCE’s mentors, who have made the program nationally recognized. On game day, teams focus on cooking and serving.
“It’s been a really good experience being able to incorporate the different components into it,” Jacobs said. “One of the lessons is just working with other people and knowing when to push someone along and knowing when you need to get this done now.”
Since its introduction to UH students in 2002, Wolffest has improved every year for the participants and the attendees.
“I think we’re going to see a lot of great things at Wolffest this year. A lot of exciting booths that haven’t been done before, and I think that we’ll make a lot of money for the program,” Cohen-Kurzrock said.