A Boost Build for Business: New Fund Helps Students, Recent Grads Launch Startups
Starting a business isn’t easy, but a new initiative from Dominican University’s Brennan School of Business can help students and recent graduates find their financial footing.
The Entrepreneur Launchpad Fund (ELF) was created by professors this year to establish grants for underserved students and alumnae/i from the last three years who are running their own small businesses. In April, five applicants were invited to appear before a panel of judges to compete for more than $20,000 in grants acquired through fundraising efforts led by Mike Kiyosaki, clinical professor of management and Brennan’s executive in residence.
While an entrepreneurship course encourages students to develop real-world business plans, many won’t get beyond the planning stage due to lack of funds, Kiyosaki noted.
During last year’s Undergraduate Research, Scholarship and Creative Investigations expo, Kiyosaki recalled meeting fashion students with outstanding designs and nutrition students with aspirations as restaurateurs, but no capital to see their dreams realized.
“That’s when I thought, ‘We’ve got to help these students,’” Kiyosaki said. “It’s great that we’re helping them in an academic environment, but we have to get them to the next level.”
That’s what Brian Kafunya ’20, MBA ’22 and Jonathan Seals, ’21 were striving to reach with their start-up, Kafunya Consulting. The pair were the top finishers in the ELF challenge, receiving $10,000 to build up the business, which provides data analysis, management services and business consulting to small emerging companies, with an emphasis on Black and brown communities.
Winning the competition was “a real blessing,” Kafunya, the firm’s CEO, said.
“To see the judges and DU have faith in our mission—which is to enable other entrepreneurs (to be successful)—was surreal,” he said. “It gave our business a boost.”
The two friends met through Dominican’s Beloved Community, a faith formation group focused on the experiences and spiritualities of Black communities in and around Chicago. Through volunteer opportunities on Chicago’s West Side, the pair engaged in “deep conversations” about the problems facing the neighborhoods they visited, Seals recalled. The friends wondered what they, as business students, could do.
“We’d already been service-oriented and community-driven,” Kafunya explained. “Together, we were able to sit down, collaborate and see how to use our talents and degrees to develop the Dominican ethos of Caritas et Veritas. That’s how our consulting firm was built.”
With Kafunya’s business leadership background and Seals’ concentration on data analysis as an informatics major, Kafunya Consulting was born.
“We believe that once small companies in Black and brown communities thrive, the positivity from that will go back into the community in the form of funding,” Seals said. “That lifts up the community.”
Nick Kowalczyk ’23, who took second place in the Launchpad 2023 competition and received $5,000, helped start a family business while still a Dominican student. Home Improvement Discount, a retail store selling liquidated home improvement items and materials, was born out of global supply chain issues that made it challenging for small business contractors to acquire the materials needed for their livelihood.
“We found a way to get products at cheaper prices through liquidation auctions,” said Kowalczyk. “We were able to fill a need in the market by having products available that are still good quality.”
The items—consisting of returns that big-box retailers cannot resell, merchandise from shuttered stores, and discontinued styles—are sold to contractors and homeowners from Home Improvement Discount’s brick-and-mortar store in Homer Glen and online.
Kowalczyk’s professor Dr. Anne Drougas encouraged him to enter the Entrepreneur Launchpad Fund competition after he developed a detailed business plan for a course in entrepreneurial finance.
“The fact that I got to show this off to my peers and also compete for funding was amazing,” said Kowalczyk, who handles the business’ balance sheets and monitors cash flow while also working full-time as a client service associate with Morgan Stanley. “Our business has needs to be covered. We’re looking to market and advertise more, sponsor community events, put up a new sign in front of our store. We want to grow and the Launchpad competition provided the funding to make that happen.”
Other ELF competitors who were awarded funding included Isbhel Brito, sales manager for Brito’s Jewelry, a family-owned business; Gavin Richardson and Olivia Remington, with H2Grow, which sells aquaponic systems for food production and was a finalist in Brennan’s 2022 Business Plan Challenge; and Alan Garcia Baez, with ProReqs, which uses AI technology to help project managers with their workflows and outcomes.
For Drougas, the Entrepreneur Launchpad Fund and competition are another way for the Dominican mission to be realized.
“Given our mission of social justice, equity and inclusion, the mindset of many students is that they want to serve,” she said. “I think this presents a good opportunity for our students to learn about developing a business while providing them with the next step of helping them create that business.”
“I do hope we can be an important part of the Dominican community, whether it’s giving back to alumni or current students, or making a way for students of color,” he said.
For more information on the Entrepreneur Launchpad Fund, visit dulaunchpad.org.