By Shala Watson
Multimedia Writer

Rural communities make up more than half of the Lone Star State, and the Texas Rural Challenge is a statewide conference that caters to these rural communities and gives them resources to strengthen their economies.

“It’s about growing rural Texas, strengthening rural Texas and empowering rural Texas through rural businesses but also through leadership development,” said Gil Gonzalez, director of the Small Business Development Center (SBDC) Rural Business Program at the University of Texas at San Antonio Institute for Economic Development.

The conference, which will be held on June 29-30 in Waco, hosts two competitions that encourage entrepreneurship and technological innovation among college students and small business owners. The deadline to enter these competitions is April 28.

Many young students who grow up in rural communities desire to give back to their small towns, but there are economic obstacles that may prevent them from returning after college.

The conference offers the Texas Student Challenge (TSC) as a way to encourage entrepreneurship and technological innovation among students throughout the state. TSC is a fast-pitch and business plan competition open to undergraduate and graduate students attending any Texas college or university.

“The Texas Student Challenge is a statewide university-based new venture competition that really encourages students from across the state to really innovate using technology for needs in rural communities,” Gonzalez said.

Competing has its rewards. There is a cash incentive up to $10,000 for first, second and third place winners, according to Gonzalez.

Students must submit their executive summary by April 28 and will be notified by May 10 if they are selected to present their business plan at the Texas Rural Challenge in Waco.

“We can get them fired up, engaged, excited and inspired by making a difference in their small town,” Gonzalez said. “They really do want to be a part of the community’s future where they are from, and this is one way to get them back there.”

By competing in the TSC, college students can sharpen their entrepreneurial and leadership skills with the chance to win cash prizes.

“Competing in the Texas Student Challenge was a wonderful experience through which I gained such valuable insight on how college students can become successful in business,” Manish Patel, third place winner in 2016, said.

Another business plan competition held during the TRC conference is Texas Strong. This competition supports the development of rural Texas Small Business Development Center (SBDC) clients who have developed innovative products or services to benefit rural communities.

Eight finalists, two from each SBDC network in Texas, will be selected as the “Best of Texas Strong” and invited to compete in a fast-pitch competition for cash prizes.

“Texas SBDC regions nominate up to two small business clients that they feel have had an impact in their respective regions in terms of job growth, sustainability, and environmental areas,” Gonzalez said.

Last year’s Texas Strong first place winner Robert Likarish, CEO of Ironroot Republic Distillery, received $10,000.

“Texas Strong opened my eyes to all the amazing things happening in our rural communities and made me proud to be from a rural community,” Likarish said.

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