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Culver students take 2 of top 3 spots in entrepreneur competition at Notre Dame

Tom Coyne

Emma Butcher ’25 finished second and roommates John Afari-Aikins ’24 and Brit Crockett ’25 placed third in the McCloskey New Venture Competition. (Photo by Tom Coyne)


Culver Academies students Emma Butcher ’25 and roommates John Afari-Aikins ’24 and Brit Crockett ’25 placed in the top three in the high school division of the McCloskey New Venture Competition at the University of Notre Dame.

Butcher placed second for her Debt Settler app in the Garatoni Family Awards and won $1,500. Afari-Aikins and Crockett placed third and won $500 for their Healthy Homes business plan that would reward people by lowering their homeowner insurance costs for keeping their houses well maintained.

“This shows that students can use what they’re doing at Culver in a lot of positive ways,” said J.D. Uebler, director of The Ron Rubin School for the Entrepreneur at Culver.

The competition gives students an opportunity to test the validity of their ideas and innovations and allows students to develop skills directly transferable to the commercial market. Participants are encouraged to create presentations and pitch decks and work with mentors.

Uebler said the McCloskey competition gives Culver students the opportunity to compete against high school students from St. Joseph, Elkhart and Marshall counties in northern Indiana.

Uebler said he encouraged students in the Rubin School to enter because “we knew we had to offer our students some more authentic pitch experiences. They were only getting them from the Miclot Family Business Plan Competition and the Elevator Pitch Competition offered at Culver,” he said.

Another advantage is the competition gives Culver students a different group of judges to pitch to, Uebler said.

“We wanted them to be exposed to that judging and evaluation so they could hear different voices and different perspectives on their ideas,” Uebler said.

Ten Culver students submitted proposals in the first round of the competition that included a 10-slide pitch deck and a three-minute video pitch. Five students were selected to advance to the second round, and three of them decided to create a 13-slide pitch deck and a six-minute video required to move forward.

Uebler said the students got valuable feedback from judges after each round.

Butcher decided to enter the McCloskey competition after attending a meeting with instructors at The Ron Rubin School informing them about the contest. She said she came up with the idea for Debt Settlers after talking with her father, Brian, an engineer.

She said she came up with the idea because she knows people who have struggled with credit card debt because it accumulates so quickly. The Federal Reserve Bank of New York recently reported that about 8.9 percent of credit card balances fell into delinquency over the past year.

“For a lot of people, credit cards are their only solution. So, I was trying to think of a way to help them people get rid of that debt faster,” Butcher said. “That’s how we got to the idea of Debt Settler.”

The plan calls for consumers to download the app and connect all of their credit cards they have debt on. The app would then auction off the debt. For instance, if someone had $500, they would input that on the app. The credit cards would then bid for that money.

One credit card company might offer to reduce the debt by $800 for that $500. Another might offer $1,000.

“From there, you decide which one to take,” she said. “It’s just a faster way to settle debt and save money while doing it.”

Butcher said she initially planned to study political science in college, but now she is leaning toward studying business or entrepreneurship. She said that her work as an operations manager with the Rubin Café has sparked her interest in business and entrepreneurship.

Butcher said she plans to enter the contest again next year.

“Even before I found out that I finished in second place I still would have found the experience worth it,” she said.

She said it forced her to look up business terms such as “channels” and “B2B2c” (business to business to consumer), which she found helpful.

“That extra knowledge I gained from it is helpful,” she said.  

Afari-Aikins and Crockett had used their Healthy Homes idea to win the Miclot Family Business Competition at Culver and its $5,000 first prize a year ago. Crockett’s mother is a mortgage lender and Afari-Aikins remembers when his family was moving they saw some houses that looked great, but then they found out about some problems after they were inspected.

“You found out they had a lot of hidden problems,” Afari-Aikins said.

Participants in Healthy Homes would be required to have their home inspected twice a year and they’d be encouraged to perform preventative home maintenance.  The goal would be to lower home insurance costs because the homeowners are keeping up with maintenance.

“We’ll help you catch potential issues or problems early before they develop into a larger problem,” Afari-Aikins said.

Healthy Homes also would form relationships with contractors who could do repairs at a discounted price for the homeowners.

“We would provide connections with local and national brands that would offer discounts for the work,” Crockett said. “People would save money through prevention and through the connections.”

The service would cost about $700 a year.

Crockett said he refined the Healthy Homes business plan this past summer while taking part in a seminar at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School by focusing on how to start the business and who would be its target audience.

“I expanded and developed the idea a lot more, so we were ready when we heard about the McCloskey competition,” Crockett said.

Crockett said he plans to go to school for business and he is interested in eventually trying to start Healthy Homes.

“Because there has to be a reason why the judges and a lot of adults like this idea. It just makes sense,” he said.

Afari-Aikins plans to attend the U.S. Military Academy, although he’s not certain of his major. He may study chemical engineering.

Uebler said the success of the students affirms that The Ron Rubin School for the Entrepreneur is taking the right approach.

“It affirms we’re doing the right things, the right value-add for our students,” he said. “Because if we have judges from this elite business pitch competition signaling that our students are successful, it gives us more motivation to keep doing the things that we are doing and to tweak what we need to.”

Uebler said the Rubin School staff will encourage students to enter the McCloskey competition in the future.

“This is a way to show Notre Dame that students going through our program have some chops,” Uebler said. “We want to continue to target this high-level pitch competition because of the exposure for our students and the feedback we get back.”



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