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The Mighty Ducks: Richland Student Entrepreneurs Make Waves

This article appeared in a May 2016 issue of the student newsletter.

REC members Ermmias Teclemariam , Kristen Phan and Jordan Villegas.

Every other Thursday, students in the Richland College Entrepreneurship Club (REC) gather in room WH-103. Together club members network, learn valuable business skills and discuss how REC can make an impact on their community.

The club isn't just making a local name for itself, however. Last year, REC earned national recognition when club members were asked to compete in the fourth annual Alley Scholars Shark Tank Business Plan Challenge. The team took third place and a prize of $2,000.

This year club members were determined to return.

Selecting a Business Plan

To choose who exactly would represent the club, as well as Richland College, in this year's Shark Tank competition, REC hosted its first annual "Duck Pond Business Plan Challenge" on Dec. 10, 2015. The event asked students to form teams, build their own business plans and present their ideas to a panel of local business professionals and faculty judges. 

One team, Stronix Solutions, had a revolutionary idea. The students wanted to transform industrial electronics.

"In the last 20 years, we have advanced from using flip phones with a simple interface to smartphones where everything is literally at our fingertips," explains Kristen, team member. "But, that trend doesn’t apply to industrial equipment. Technicians continue to use the same outdated equipment for years without even questioning why."

Stronix Solutions' idea to revolutionize the way industrial equipment is designed (and utilized) caught the judges’ attention. The team's 20-page business plan was comprehensive, and the team had presented a fully functional prototype: a highly capable, user-friendly, smart relay.

"Frame relays are not new," explains Kevin Wortley, faculty advisor of the Richland Entrepreneurship Club. "But what made Stronix Solutions' frame relay so different than other frame relay devices was the fact that it was a touchscreen that could be programmed, or re-programmed, within 30 to 60 seconds."

The Big Announcement

Kristen Phan (accounting major), Ermmias Teclemariam (engineering major) and Jordan Villegas (chemistry major) beamed with excitement as the Richland Entrepreneurship Club named their team – team Stronix Solutions – the winners of the Duck Pond Business Plan Challenge. Their unique business plan would move forward to the Alley Scholars Shark Tank competition. 

Also unique was the group dynamic – three team members who carry four ethnicities and three different majors. Stronix Solutions was of the same mind, however. Team members all wanted to revolutionize industrial electronics. 

On the Road 

Richland College, and specifically the Office of Student Life, provided the financial support needed to get the entrepreneurship club to the Shark Tank competition. Once team Stronix Solutions arrived group members were given eight minutes to pitch their business plan to the judges.

"We were in front of an audience of 200-plus, so I was very nervous," explains Jordan, the team's youngest member. "I actually did some deep breathing beforehand."

After the team's presentation, one judge offered Jordan some personal advice, which he says helped the team improve their business concept. 

"Initially we were going to design our own line of industrial equipment [smart relays], but after hearing feedback from Judge Hyder we decided to switch to providing an IT consulting service with focus on user interface," explains Jordan. 

Rising to the Top

In the end, team Stronix Solutions represented Richland College well, taking fourth place and prize of $1,000 at the Alley Scholars Shark Tank competition.

But they didn't stop there.

The team applied and was selected as one of 49 schools nationwide to compete in the Texas Christian University Values and Ventures Business Plan Competition. Richland was the one and only community college team present at the competition. 

"At TCU, it was huge," says Jordan, who took advantage of the competition's numerous networking opportunities. "The competition was a lot more fierce. We were going up against these major universities. Many were in their junior/senior year, but we are only sophomores."

World renown competitors at TCU included Harvard University, John Hopkins University, University of Chicago, Georgetown University, Rice University, University of Notre Dame, SMU, University of Strathclyde (Scotland) and University of Brawijaya (Indonesia), to name a few.

The Big Pitch

Stronix Solutions was given 12 minutes to pitch at the TCU competition. The team ended up finishing their presentation in nine minutes.  

"Before the TCU competition we did a lot more market research," explains Ermmias. "We reached out to local engineers to test our hypothesis that industrial equipment needed a better user interface. We wanted to see what could be done better."

To make industrial machines more user friendly, the team decided to provide IT consulting. Their service consists of using eye-tracking technology to collect user experience data. 

"After we collect the data, we are able to redesign the user interface to better match where the engineer is naturally looking," says Ermmias. "This reduces training cost as well as mental fatigue for the user."

TCU Competition Results and Next Steps

In the end, team Stronix Solutions did not place at the TCU competition. But the judges had positive feedback.

"The judges liked our idea and said they were thirsty for more," notes Jordan. "We went head-to-head with John Hopkins University and their patent-pending surgery device, so the competition was intense."

The team also received praise from the competition cofounder, Nancy Richards, who really liked team Stronix Solutions' idea and encouraged the team to pursue it.

The team did.

Stronix Solutions later applied to (and presented at) the University of Texas at Dallas Spring Pitch Competition on April 14.

"One of our competitors told me he has been to over 20 competitions," notes Jordan. "He won the UTD competition, but that was his first time placing. Sometimes you have to just keep going."

Team Stronix Solutions plans to do just that. Over the summer the team will be doing additional market research and building a customer database. The team is considering starting an actual business.

"We've put a lot of all-nighters in," recalls Ermmias. "Our goal now is to get the company started, connect with potential investors and see where things go."  

Giving Thanks

Kristen says before anything else, the team is taking time to give thanks. 

Kristen would like to thank her Richland professors – Mrs. Bekele, Mrs. Robertson and Mrs. Martin – for inspiring her to pursue accounting. 

Jordan would like to thank Kevin Wortley and Shama Hyder for helping pivot the team to where it is now. He would also like to thank his Richland professors for all the fantastic experiences and his father for being his main source of inspiration and work ethics. 

"I want to thank Chip Izzard, one of our mentors, and Tim Owens, the fourth honorary member of our team," says Ermmias, after explaining that his main supporter is God. "I am a new Christian, so being able to have a relationship with God has comforted me through this tough process. I know that no matter what happens, it will be OK."

Get Involved

DCCCD students who are interested in joining the Richland Entrepreneurship club should email Kevin Wortley, club advisor, at​

"One of the first thing we will do in Fall 2016 is club elections," explains Wortley. "My goal is to carry over a few of our student leaders from the year before so there is some historical and institutional knowledge of what went on the year before. But we definitely would like to have new members get engaged too."

About Team Stronix Solutions

Kristen Phan serves as president of the Richland Entrepreneurship Club and works as an intern for Texas Concierge. She also facilitates financial empowerment workshops at WiNGS, where she empowers clients to become more independent, personally and financially. She graduates from Richland College this month and plans to finish her dual bachelor degrees in accounting and biology. Her dream school is Harvard.

Ermmias Teclemariam works at Medical City Hospital where he is approaching his fourth year of employment. Academically, he plans to transfer to UNT to pursue an electrical engineering degree. His dream is to build an engineering company, with the plans of selling original built products.

Jordan Villegas is a 2015 graduate of Richland Collegiate High School who plans to begin his junior year of college in Fall 2016 as a chemistry major at UTD.  He hopes to find a science career within entrepreneurship.  If that doesn't work out, his backup plan is to become a corrosion engineer.