SUA Students Again Prove Their Mettle at UCI Startup Competition

August 04, 2022
Qiankuan Yang ’23, Yixin Wang ’23, UCI student Qian "Rebecca" Liu, and Aarohee Bhattarai ’23 pose with giant checks at the UCI New Venture Competition.
Qiankuan Yang ’23, Yixin Wang ’23, UCI student Qian "Rebecca" Liu, and Aarohee Bhattarai ’23 (in the foreground) at the UCI New Venture Competition.

Enjovu, a sustainable paper business model created by Qiankuan Yang ’23, Thea Mudanye ’23, and Yixin Wang ’23, finished second overall in UC Irvine’s annual New Venture Competition June 3.

While this marks the second year in a row Soka students have placed first or second in the competition’s grand finale, Mary Patrick Kavanaugh, SUA director of special projects and the Bridges to Business program, believes the students’ multifaceted growth is even more impressive than their showing.

“Participating in a business plan competition alongside MBA students and entrepreneurs is not unlike studying abroad,” Kavanaugh said. “Students must learn the language, immerse themselves in the culture, and interact with those native to business. These experiences ultimately lead them to be more conscious, empowered global citizens who now know they have the agency to enact change.”

Enjovu envisions producing paper from elephant dung. The name “Enjovu” is derived from “Njovu,” which means “elephant” in Luganda, Mudanye’s native language. The team chose elephants for their project because they digest only about 50% of their food, making their waste extremely fibrous—an essential quality of good paper.

Beyond the utility of elephants’ waste for paper production, the team also wanted to raise awareness for the endangered species. The elephant population has decreased more than 80% worldwide in the last 25 years, and there are fewer than 300 elephants left in Wang and Yang’s home country of China.

The team conceptualized the Enjovu project during Impactathon, a business competition organized by SUA’s Bridges 2 Business program, at the beginning of the 2022 spring semester. After winning first place in the competition, they decided to bring their idea to the UCI event.

Aarohee Bhattarai ’23 and two UCI students joined the team after the B2B competition in preparation for their concept submission. The expanded team spent the next two months honing the idea before turning in the concept paper. The competition committee selected their paper, and the team pitched their idea in the semifinals on May 13, fielding questions from a panel of judges from Orange County’s startup ecosystem. The team placed second in their competition track, earning a $5,000 prize and a spot in the finals.

On June 3, the top two teams from each track faced off in a three-minute fast-pitch at the finals. Enjovu placed second overall, also winning the “Audience Favorite” vote, to win an additional $5,000.

The networking event following the competition was eye-opening for the Enjovu team. Local investors and businesspeople offered guidance about the accelerator programs they should try, while others just wanted to know how they developed such an ingenious project. “Our confidence grew as people approached us to learn more about the project,” Bhattarai said. “The win means that we did great as a team, we had great mentors, and our project is trustworthy and feasible with the proper network.”

Participating in the competition allowed the team to flesh out their idea and envision potential steps toward making it a reality. Although the students do not have immediate plans to operationalize Enjovu, the $10,000 they won will enable them to take the next steps when they are ready—and Kavanaugh believes they will have both the resources and mindset needed to succeed when that time comes.

“Liberal arts students who initially believed they had no interest in business have shifted from the mindset of ‘they do that’ to the epiphany ‘I do that,’ ” Kavanaugh said.

—Nugnandini Chhetri ’25