Cody Theil won the inaugural Sarnicola Entrepreneur Award, a $10,000 grant from Nick and Ashley Sarnicola and the NextGen Foundation, presented to a Muskegon Community College (MCC) student whose entrepreneurial concept is judged the best in an annual competition.
Nick Sarnicola announced the winner on June 1 at the MCC Rooks|Sarnicola Entrepreneur Institute and Lakeshore Fab Lab Grand Opening in downtown Muskegon.
A surprised Theil, fighting back tears of joy, told the audience of more than 100 attendees, “Two years ago, I didn’t even know how to enroll for a classes. I am a first generation college student. I never planned on going to school until a year and some change ago.”
Theil’s winning concept is to create a marketing company which taps into “an entire generation of hardworking young adults who are not being utilized…an unbeatable team of creatives and technical minds who are just waiting to be given their chance.” Theil will connect this resource with today’s small businesses and promising startups, who are “being crushed by the increasing costs of creative work. They’re moving at a fast pace and don’t have the time to do it themselves.”
“Because I am part of this generation, I believe in us, and I know we can deliver,” continued Theil. “We are a go-getter group who will face each challenge with raw creativity and natural talent. My team will be largely reimbursed in knowledge, experience, and portfolio work. While they will be paid, our costs per hour will be much lower than other firms.”
“While all businesses can benefit from our service, we will primarily be targeting small businesses. Preferably those who are heavily invested in the West Michigan area and show a real passion for their craft and believe in their businesses. We will also be targeting startups and owners who show natural zeal.”
An Indiana native whose family moved to West Michigan when he was an infant, Theil graduated from Western Michigan Christian High School in 2015. During his junior year, he set his sights on a graphic design career. He enrolled at MCC in Fall 2016 when the Graphic Design Program was in a period of transition.
Thiel praises MCC Business Department faculty members Kevin Kyser, David Stradal and Christopher VanOosterhout for making a difference in his life.
“They were just my biggest advocates,” he explained. “They worked so hard to get a schedule for me and to get my courses. They really believed in me. Two years ago, I had no idea what college was about. You kind of always get this idea that you’re going to be just another student, another number. And the fact that I got to come here and sit down with the business chair and put together a customized plan, it’s unreal.”
Thiel developed his award-winning concept in Stradal’s Entrepreneurship Capstone class at the same time he first learned of the Sarnicola Entrepreneur Award.
“On the first day of class, he told us a successful business doesn’t just sell a product or service, it solves a problem,” recounted Theil. “I thought about what’s my biggest problem. It was the fact that I was a student working on my portfolio and had a little bit of success meeting with clients, but whenever I would email or cold call an agency, they didn’t pay any attention to me because I’m just a kid. I really saw an opportunity to provide a solution for both businesses and students.”
As for the award, Thiel remembered thinking that at the time that it would be great to win, but that it was something out of reach.
“Then suddenly you’re sitting in front of this webcam presenting your plan to Nick Sarnicola. Its’s the most nerve-racking experience. I’ve spent two years fine tuning this plan and then it finally comes down to this and it hits you and the sweat starts pouring out. What was really cool was meeting him in person and just shaking his hand. He gives you a hug and he’s the most genuine, warmest person. The fact that he’s real. It was a shock to me.”
“I’m so excited that Nextgen is fulfilling its purpose by helping to propel Cody into entrepreneurship,” said Sarnicola. “He is an amazing young man who has a great business plan. I can’t wait to see him in action and for NextGen to be his first client.”
Thiel earned a Graphic Design Entrepreneur associate’s degree from MCC in May and currently plans to attend Grand Valley State University for graphic design this fall. In the meantime, though, he has already started meeting with NextGen’s Patrick Adams on honing his concept to provide graphic design, marketing, and branding services to that firm’s growing list of budding entrepreneurs.
“Cody wants to complete a bachelor’s degree at Grand Valley State University while developing his business,” said David Stradal, chair of the MCC Business Department and Director of the Entrepreneurial Studies programs. “The award is tailored over two years to enable him to earn that degree and succeed at both. It also includes mentoring provided by Executive Director of Next Generation Patrick Adams, Kevin Kyser, and myself.
“Not only is Cody an immensely talented designer and excellent communicator, he possesses a natural drive that will serve him well as a young entrepreneur,” said MCC Graphic Design Instructor Kevin Kyser.
The Sarnicola Entrepreneur Award competitive process itself included two rounds of business plan presentations. In the first round each student had to present to a judging panel comprised of John Brocci and Ozeta Aaron from SCORE and Patrick Adams. The committee then selected two finalists, Theil and Ashley Jagnecki, to present directly to Sarnicola.
“Nick was very impressed with both presentations but in the end Cody’s unique and timely idea for a student-based marketing firm resonated more with Nick than Ashley’s Mexican-themed food truck,” explained Stradal. “All the judges thought Ashley’s idea was extremely viable and encouraged her to pursue that dream.”
Stradal admittedly was impressed with all the MCC students who competed for the Sarnicola Entrepreneur Award. “All have the potential to be strong, local, entrepreneurs,” he said.
MCC’s Entrepreneur Program continues to help high school, college students, and adults to develop strong business ideas for local businesses to grow our economy. For more information please call David Stradal at (231) 777-0304.