Written By Amanda Mollindo

In the fall of 2017, CEI set out on an unprecedented mission: to launch one business led by students from Maricopa Community College. While we’ve had our fair share of success with incubating Arizona biomedical, technology, sustainability, and life science startups, we have always focused on supporting businesses from outside the community college district. But over the years, it’s become increasingly clear that many of the college students who are here furthering their education are doing so because they dream of eventually launching their own business.

The truth is, community colleges are no longer just places to get an Associate’s degree or to take some gen-ed credits that can apply to a university program. At the Maricopa County Community College District, some students are taking courses to supplement their entrepreneurial aspirations.

Recognizing this, CEI launched The Big Pitch, a startup challenge that put participating students through a high-impact accelerator for a chance to win over $20,000 in cash and services.

In doing so, we are able to support MCCCD’s entrepreneurial efforts across the district more effectively.

“There are several of us in the Maricopa College District that have been working to build an entrepreneurial ecosystem,” said Bruce McHenry, Business faculty and Director of Community Entrepreneurship Center at South Mountain Community College. “This is a huge step forward for that ecosystem to have that inside the college and to connect with resources of CEI.”

Thanks to GateWay Community College’s Innovation Leadership Award, we were able to put on a great program and invited each college to send their top student entrepreneur to compete in The Big Pitch during Spring Break.


Throughout the week, 6 students from 6 different MCCCD colleges learned startup essentials from experienced business leaders. Beyond full schedules packed with lectures and exercises, participants also got one-on-one time during Wednesday’s mentor round table. They worked around the clock to pull their pitches together for the big day and received some intense pitch coaching sessions the afternoon before the big event.

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“The instruction provided throughout the week was unlike anything these students had experienced before. We felt it was important to develop the course around lecturers and mentors who have extensive business experience launching their own start-up companies. What they delivered was the equivalent to an MBA in start-up tactics.”

— Tom Schumann, Executive Director of CEI

“CEI has an amazing group of subject matter experts that support our clients. Over 20 of these experienced entrepreneur and business experts shared the lessons they’ve learned so the college students could get it right the first time. If I would have had this group teaching me when I was an entrepreneur, I would have saved so much time and effort and reached success quicker. Thank you one and all!”

—Patti DuBois, Assistant Director of CEI

Beyond an outstanding lineup of lecturers, students got a taste of the pressure that comes with entrepreneurship. Christopher Figueroa, student at Paradise Valley Community College said, “I’m not going to lie — I thought about quitting this competition three or four times. But as I realized why I was doing this, The Big Pitch helped me find and communicate the value of my business and what I believe in.”

Christopher Figueroa - The Big Pitch

The BIG Event

After a long night of hard work finalizing their decks, these student entrepreneurs were up and ready to pitch first thing Friday morning.

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Each Big Pitcher had 5 minutes to wow the judges with their business idea and 10 minutes for Q&A with Romi Dhillon (Arizona Founders Fund), Rick Stoddard (Coplex), and CEI’s Executive Director, Tom Schumann. The students were scored based on the viability of their business, the strength of their revenue model, their go-to-market plan, and more.

Sebastian Racha, a student from Chandler-Gilbert Community College, kicked-off the morning with a pitch for Le Cliche, a French bakery that brings the flavors of his home country to Arizona!

Sebastien Racha
Sebastien brought a sample of his bread for the judges to taste.

Sebastien brought a sample of his bread for the judges to taste.

Next, we heard from Charlotte Hazzard, a student at South Mountain Community College and creator of the HushUp Bra. Her patented garment helps alleviate the pain experienced by women who wear D cups and above.  

Charlotte Hazzard - The Big Pitch

After that, Glendale Community College student, Joshua Pardhe, pitched his plan to make saving the planet fun by gamifying water conservation in apartment homes.

Joshua Pardhe - The Big Pitch

Then Christopher Figueroa delivered a compelling pitch for Z Conference, an event that reduces student dropout rates by directly addressing their educational needs in a community college environment.

Christopher Figueroa — The Big Pitch

Ronnie Ruiz, Estrella Mountain College and owner of Kustom Tyres and Supplies, pitched next.

Ronnie Ruiz — The Big Pitch

Finally, Sila Fryre, Student at GateWay Community College, presented a powerful narrative for her platform, Finest Finds.

Sila Fyre - The Big Pitch

Despite the competitive nature of the program, participants showed support for one another while the judges left the room to score each pitch.

Each student did an amazing job presenting their business idea, and choosing a winner was no simple task for the judges. But after careful deliberation, Estrella Mountain College student and owner of Kustom Tyres and Supplies (KT&S), Ronnie Ruiz, won the grand prize!

“I never thought I’d do any type of pitch for my business, but I had the opportunity to be here, so I took advantage of it,” Ronnie said after winning The Big Pitch, “there’s a lot to learn, especially if you want to  go big.”

Along with new business knowledge and funding from APS and Arizona Founders Fund, Ronnie is walking away with in-kind business services from Coplex, DLA Piper, and Woods Oviatt Gilman. To help him grow KT&S as quickly and efficiently as possible, he will also be working directly with CEI throughout the next year, with the goal of reaching $100,000 in revenue.

Even though they didn’t win The Big Pitch, students from GateWay, Glendale, Chandler-Gilbert, South Mountain, and Paradise Valley Community Colleges gained the knowledge and resources that they plan to use as they pursue their entrepreneurial dreams. Here are just a few things our Big Pitchers had to say about their experience:

“When I started college, I never thought I’d be launching a startup or anything of that nature. I thought I’d be counseling at-risk youth. But for me, The Big Pitch has been transformational…Going forward, I want to tell students that no idea is too small or too big. If you can see it in yourself, there is a process that will help get your idea out there, communicate it to others, and make it a reality.”

— Christopher Figueroa

“I came to The Big Pitch with an idea that I thought was a good business plan. But after a week of talking to mentors and speakers, I was able to revise it to make a business plan that is actually viable. With the training here, I can actually take it and pitch it to investors.”

— Joshua Pardhe

“Before I came here, I didn’t even know what pitching meant and I didn’t really want to start a business. I just wanted to learn anything I could. But during this week, I convinced myself it’s going to work… so I think I’m actually going to start my bakery.”

— Sebastian Racha

All in all, we’re proud to say that The Big Pitch was a huge success! Residential Faculty of Psychology at Paradise Valley, Dr. Caron Sada said, “Thank you for creating such an amazing first year event to bring all of the colleges together in entrepreneurship and for providing the students with a great experience via the boot camp/pitch. You pulled off such a high quality experience in such a short period of time!”

But we can’t take all the credit – this event wouldn’t have been possible without our community!

We couldn’t have done it without the support of Maricopa Community Colleges, our volunteer lecturers, mentors, coaches, and our generous sponsors!



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Shantanu Bala, CEO & Co-founder of Somatic Labs

Ashley Bright, Pitch Consultant at Ashley Bright Presents

Greg Bullock, Director of Marketing at TheraSpecs

John DenBoer, Founder of Smart Brain Aging

Eric Diaz, Account Manger of OYE! Business Intelligence

Romi Dhillon, Founder & Managing Director at Arizona Founders Fund

Michael Ellenby, Business Executive & Entrepreneur

Katy Geary, Marketing Consultant at Geary Graphic Design

Jamie Glass, Founder & CMO at Artful Thinkers

Ron Kisicki, Patent Attorney at Woods Oviatt Gilman

Bruce McHenry, Business Faculty, South Mountain Community College

Kevin Mogavero, Analyst at Arizona Founders Fund

Nitish Peela, Founder of Vapometry Biolabs

Dorine Rivers, CEO at Alpha 81 Inc.

Jake Rockland, CPO & Co-Founder of Somatic Labs

Rick Stoddard, Business Development & Partner at Coplex

Tom Swann, Serial Entrepreneur

Kay Transtrum, Director of Marketing at Coplex

Liz Warren, Director, South Mountain Community College Storytelling Institute

Steve Wood, CEO of SWD Enterprises

Russ Yelton, President of Yelton and Associates

Jim Zemezonak, Founder of Boulders Realty Advisors




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On April 11, 2018, Ronnie will be representing Maricopa Community Colleges at the Conscious Capitalism Collegiate Challenge at Grand Canyon University. There, he will be sharing his mission to expand KT&S to create jobs in underserved communities.

Estrella Mountain Community College is excited for his recent success, stating that they are “honored and proud to have EMCC student, Mr. Ronnie Ruiz, represent us at the CEI’s first annual Big Pitch Competition… Ronnie was selected based on his being a recent Poder Program graduate with a viable business idea, and a recommendation from Ms. Yolanda Facio, the Poder Program facilitator, who also coached him for this event; thereby, underscoring our college motto, ‘Your success is our success.’  We wish Mr. Ruiz great success.”

After he completes this next competition, CEI will continue to work with him on developing his business as we prepare for the second Big Pitch event in 2019.

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