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Aren Trost Wins 2023 Emporia Entrepreneur Challenge

Five students hold large presentation checks

Aren Trost of McPherson won the Emporia Entrepreneur Challenge (EEC) on May 3. He received a prize of $1,500 for his idea, Balance Craft Furniture and Design LLC.

The Emporia Entrepreneur Challenge is a venture idea competition that is open to students from Emporia State University, with $3,000 in cash prizes: $1,500 for first, $1,000 for second and $500 for third.

For the first round of the competition, 56 individuals or teams submitted a three-page executive summary on March 27. Teams were judged on business model, product/service offering, feasibility, justification, specificity and originality.

Next, a panel of graders selected 21 semifinalist teams to advance to the next round of the competition. During this semifinal round, students had two weeks to refine their big ideas based on graders' feedback. Students worked with faculty to further develop their concept. This round of the competition consisted of these teams submitting virtual oral pitches by April 14.

Based on the previous round of feedback, the EEC Committee reviewed the results of the video pitching round as selected by the external graders and determined the top three teams being selected for a final round of live pitching to a set of new judges on May 3. Shortly after these three pitches, the judges named the first, second, and third place winners.

Trost (interdisciplinary entrepreneurship major, McPherson) also won the Dr. John Zimmerman Entrepreneurial Prize, a gift graciously funded by Dan Austin, alumni, who remembers a profound conversation with Dr. Zimmerman about serving others.

Trost explained his concept: “Balance Craft Furniture and Design LLC offers custom-welded furniture designs for modern homeowners, apartment building owners, commercial offices, restaurants, bars and hotels. We make completely new and unique custom pieces for the customer to express a specific style and design for their space. Welded furniture can take just about any shape, form, color and functionality with a balance of a metal frame that has a wooden top or accent pieces. Some of the designs we can make include tables, shelves, stair railing, desks, chairs, benches and much more. We can customize and fabricate any design. Everything can be changed from the dimensions to the colors of metal, finishes of the wood and metals, stains of the wood, as well as the wood types. We are highly customer focused and desire to help them create the perfect piece of furniture for their homes.”

Second place and $1,000 went to Lexi Morgan (interdisciplinary entrepreneurship major, Argyle, Texas), Kellee Banks (interdisciplinary entrepreneurship major, Wichita) and Noah Salazar (interdisciplinary studies major, Sterling) for their idea Chip Chocolates.

From their entry: “Chip Chocolates is a company where happiness is homemade. We are committed to creating not just flavorful cookies but amazing experiences as well. Our company strives to take whatever may be going on in life and add our special sweetness to it. Chip Chocolates’ mission statement is: To bring a nostalgic feeling in every cookie from our fresh and simplistic ingredients. We are based in Emporia, Kansas, and Argyle, Texas, and are easily accessible online through, where you can place an online order by contacting us through email or Instagram.”

Linnea Mowry (marketing major, New Strawn) took third place and $500 with her idea, Specta.

“My proposal is a high-tech product used to connect all people like never before. Specta are smart glasses that project real-time, augmented reality (AR) subtitles into view in consumers’ native or non-native language. Specta would allow deaf and hard of hearing, neurodivergent, non-native speakers and those who prefer subtitles to read conversations in assistance to or in place of auditory listening or to translate languages effortlessly. I thought of Specta when I realized how helpful subtitles were to myself, let alone to those who struggle to hear, focus or speak a new language. Specta has the ability to change how the world communicates and connects with all people of all cultures despite health or language barriers.”

Dr. Jeff Muldoon, director of the EEC committee, said “This was a wonderful competition this year with some superb projects. The students are to be congratulated on their excellent efforts. The three finalists were exceptionally strong. I would like to thank the students, supporters, committee, judges and graders who made this competition possible.”

Dr. Ed Bashaw, dean of the School of Business, expressed his gratitude for the effort put forth in this year’s competition. “The EEC was especially a team effort this year. We had 14 different individuals from both the Emporia State campus community and the Emporia business community that helped us run this year’s competition. I thank each one of them for investing their time and expertise. We also had 73 students compete as participants this year. This is the highest number since COVID. My thanks to each one of the competitors for being vulnerable and sharing their ideas with others. I believe it was because of all of the support for EEC that this year’s competition yielded the strongest finalists in my time as School of Business dean at ESU!”

The EEC committee of ESU faculty and staff included Beth Ginter, Dr. Sheryl Lidzy, Dr. Carol Lucy, Dr. Jeff Muldoon and Dr. Douglass Smith.

A big thank you to these individuals who donated their time and talents:

  • Executive Summary Graders: Dr. Derek Yonai, Jasmine Linabary, Dr. Md Amjad Hossain, Dr. Yankun Jia
  • Video Pitch Judges: Shane Garrison, Lisa Brumbaugh, Chuck Scott, Andrea Taber, Randy Hodge
  • Final Pitch Event: Shane Garrison, Lisa Brumbaugh, Chuck Scott, Andrea Taber

To learn more about the EEC:

The Elevator Challenge

As a complement to the EEC, 24 individuals/teams participated in the Elevator Challenge on Feb. 27 where they presented a 27-second live pitch. Thank you to LeLan Dains for judging this year’s Elevator Challenge.

The following Elevator Challenge winners each received $100, thanks to the sponsorship of the ESU College of Liberal Arts & Sciences:

  • Best Idea: Sam Bailey (communication major, Cimarron) for her idea Pain Point
  • Best Pitch: Chance Liebau (communication major, Chapman) for his idea NIL Agency
  • Judge's Choice: Carlos Sandoval (business administration major, Emporia), Jazmin Gutierrez (business administration major, Emporia) and Stephani Cervantes (business administration major, Emporia) for their idea, Kick Off