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Rutgers business plan competition sees a return to more traditional ventures as a start-up interior landscaper takes top prize

Entrepreneurial part-time MBA students sweep annual competition at Rutgers Business School

NEWARK, N.J., April 11, 2014 /PRNewswire/ -- There is surprisingly little technology displayed by the winners of Rutgers Business School's 2014 Business Plan Competition. Not one of the new businesses, for instance, involves an app.

Raymond Rossi, an instructor on the faculty of Management and Global Business who has overseen the competition since 2011, said the types of businesses that made it to the final round of this year's competition represented a sea change over last year.

"We went from one extreme to the other," Rossi said, noting the absence of apps and Internet-focused business plans. 

"This year, we had a group of students who were very passionate," he said. "They showed an enormous amount of knowledge, and they presented very viable business models."

The two top winners, both Rutgers Flex MBA students, started companies that provide traditional services. Brian Bergen, owner of interior landscaping company, won the $20,000 first-place prize. Paula Zwiren, president of Zwiren Title Agency, received $15,000 for second place.

Sarah Blessing, who graduated from the Rutgers Flex MBA Program in January, came up with the idea for TRAINgle, which is developing a fitness product with some flair. Her team, which includes Flex MBA students Aamir Khan and Leann Cosley-Richardson and recent MBA grad Joanna Trzaska, won the $10,000 third-place prize.

"This is a huge confidence booster," Blessing said after the competition. "It's a first step."

The competition, which has been supported by the Sales Executives Club Foundation of New Jersey for nearly 15 years, has helped to launch a number of businesses, including Tea & Honey Blends (First place, 2011), Heart Juice (First place, 2012) and medical website Opcura (First place, 2013).

This year's winners were selected from a group of five finalists who were required to make pitches to a panel of three judges and answer questions about the viability of their new businesses, including the market potential and growth strategy.

Here are the winners' stories:

Bergen Botanicals

Even without a green thumb of his own, Brian Bergen is staking his entrepreneurial ambitions on the interior landscaping industry.

After spending time working in the industry, the Rutgers Flex MBA student said he saw an opportunity for a new player to enter a marketplace dominated by lots of small, established competitors.      

"This seemed like it would be fun to do," Bergen said. "The competition is generally people who have been at this for a while and are still small. I thought I could enter, introduce technology and use my business knowledge to build a sustainable company."

In February, Bergen Botanicals celebrated eight months of business – and nearly $100,000 in sales – by winning the top prize of $20,000 in Rutgers Business School's annual business plan competition.

Bergen, who is studying entrepreneurship at Rutgers, received his undergraduate degree from West Point and then spent eight years in the U.S. Army flying Apache helicopters. His service included a stint in Iraq.

He said he originally thought the military's discipline had prepared him for the corporate world, but then he began to realize that what he really wanted was to have more influence over operations and decisions. In the end, his desire to influence how a company is run outweighed his comfort with structure.   

"Until I started to navigate the corporate world," the 34-year-old Denville resident said, "I didn't know I would never be completely satisfied until I could do things the way I wanted – and not purely for the bottom line."

In creating Bergen Botanicals, he has adopted principles of social entrepreneurism that he will incorporate into his company as it grows. For instance, he plans to donate 20 percent of his profits to organizations that support veterans and to pay for employee health care benefits once he starts hiring full-time workers.

He also has taken steps to be certified as a benefits corporation, which holds him to certain business practices, including purchasing from local vendors and using suppliers who sign a code of ethics, prohibiting such things as child labor.

"I wanted to create a company that's doing more than making profits," Bergen said. "I wanted to create a company that's also good for people, good for the environment and society – and is well-run and profitable."

Zwiren Title Agency

Paula Zwiren grew up immersed in the real estate business. The conversation around her family's dinner table often revolved around the work of her parents – her father ran a title service agency, her mother was a realtor and her step-mother worked as a real estate attorney.

It's not surprising that she would end up in real estate.

After getting her law degree and spending nine years running a mortgage banker-owned title agency, Zwiren, who is a part-time Rutgers MBA student, said she started thinking about going into business for herself.

When federal lawmakers enacted new regulations designed to tighten standards banks follow when they're doing business with third-party title agencies. The changes made Zwiren's idea of starting her own company even more viable because of the knowledge and experience she had gained working closely with the mortgage industry.

"I thought if I'm ever going to open my own company, this would be the time," the 37-year-old said. "My experience makes me confident that I'll be able to help lenders through the changes, which require them to follow tougher standards."

The opening of her company last fall coincided with an announcement about the business plan competition. "The timing was perfect," Zwiren said. "It gave me a chance to hammer out details in a way that I would not have done."

The second place $15,000 prize money will help Zwiren market her new agency, but she is also hoping the recognition of winning the competition will give her business credibility and an early promotional boost.

There's no shortage of people who tried to tell Zwiren how tough it might be to build a business. Ray Rossi, a Rutgers Business School instructor who runs the business plan competition and serves as a judge, described the job of running a title service agency as unglamorous and intensely competitive.

"She had a good understanding of what needed to be done," Rossi said. "She'll be using her background as an attorney and her contacts in the business."

Zwiren, who plans to complete her MBA studies in 2015, is determined that with hard work and keeping to simple business principles she will be build a successful company.

"I feel like I have an incredible value to add," she said. "In my heart, I know I will find customers who share a value system with me. If I find attorneys who look at things the way I do, who believe in informing and advocating for the customer, I know this will work."   


Sarah Blessing was nervous about presenting her idea for a more stylish-looking fitness band to other Flex MBA students in her Foundations of Entrepreneurship class.

But as it turned out, making that presentation was like setting her idea on a launch pad. It triggered a momentum that has provided Blessing and three of her classmates with a genuine taste of what it's like to be entrepreneurs. 

After the presentation, Blessing partnered up with classmates Leann Cosley-Richardson, Aamir Khan and Joanna Trzaska to build TRAINgle – a play on the word bangle – around Blessing's idea.

"I wanted to find a way to fit the fitness in me with the fashionista in me," said Blessing who finished the MBA program in January. "The whole point is to wear it all the time, but if you're dressed up, it looks horrible in my opinion."

Like Blessing, Cosley-Richardson, Khan and Trzaska share an interest in fitness and saw the market potential for a more stylish device. 

As part of the class project, the team did market research to show the prospects for the product and they used their networks to explore possible funding sources. "As we did each piece, doors kept opening," Blessing said.

During a class trip, for instance, Rutgers Business School Professor Jeffrey Robinson introduced the students to the capabilities of Rutgers Makerspace on the Livingston Campus. The team returned to Makerspace to enlist the help of Ali Hashemi, a Rutgers College senior, who has helped them develop a prototype using 3-D printing technology.

As their class was coming to an end and the students were wrapping up their project, Blessing and her team decided to enter the Rutgers business plan competition. By then the team, as Blessing put it, felt an excitement of "really being onto something."

The team captured third place in the business plan competition and secured $10,000 in prize money that it plans to use to continue developing a prototype and secure a patent on their design. 

TRAINgle is still in the concept phase, but Trzaska said each time the team moved to the next round of the business plan competition, it "validated" their efforts. Now, the four are pressing on, juggling classes and jobs with the work involved in building a business.

"We want to push it as far as we can," Khan said. "The experience itself is worthwhile."

For more information about the annual Rutgers Business Plan Competition, go to

A team of Rutgers part-time MBA students with an idea for a stylish fitness device won third place in Rutgers Business School's 2014 business plan competition.

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SOURCE Rutgers Business School

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