When University of Mississippi student Eli Allen of Collinsville, Mississippi, received a grant in 2015 from the Rebel Student Venture Fund (RSVF), it allowed him to concentrate fully on creating Curtsy, a mobile application that makes it easy to thrift and sell clothing, shoes, accessories and more. Curtsy, now used across the nation, has a projected 2023 revenue of $30 million.
Producing successful entrepreneurs and boosting the economy — a goal of the UM Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship (CIE) — is dependent on financial startup support for student business ventures. That’s where the RSVF, an alumni-established nonprofit that awards seed grants, comes into play.
“I was in graduate school, and my business partner William Ault was doing odd jobs to pay the bills,” said Allen, who is now based in San Francisco, California, with his company. “We worked on Curtsy in our spare time. Receiving the grant gave us enough money so we could turn our full attention to the project; it also gave us legitimacy which allowed us to attract other angel investors.
“Soon after receiving the Rebel Student Venture Fund grant, we were both working full-time on Curtsy, and we also brought in David Oates, a talented designer with startup experience as our CEO. Starting a company requires 1000% commitment from everyone involved, and that was possible because of that initial cash grant.”
The RSVF exists because of gifts contributed by UM alumni and friends interested in supporting Ole Miss student-startup businesses, and the School of Business Administration hopes to increase this private support. Since the fall of 2014, the Venture Fund has awarded $123,684 to 49 student businesses.
Clay Dibrell, professor of management, chair of entrepreneurial excellence and co-director of the CIE, described the fund’s impact.
“The RSVF funds are instrumental in giving our student entrepreneurs the resources needed to better understand who their customer is and to build products and services that customers want. In exceedingly early stage development, these student-led ventures have a better probability of success with these grants.”
The RSVF Investment Committee evaluates applications for grants from qualified student-led startup businesses. Grants range from $500 to $5,000, but those who win them receive more than monetary resources. One of the RSVF Investment Committee board members becomes an informal adviser to the company.
“We have had such a variety of interesting ideas come forward,” said Gus Ezcurra, a volunteer leader for the RSVF and senior vice president of mid-market sales at Equinix in San Francisco, California. “Many of them have been ideas that take advantage of the latest technology.
“Entrepreneurship and innovation help individuals become independent and channel their creativity into building something of their own in this competitive world,” said Ezcurra, a member of UM’s Business Advisory Board who joined alumnus Bill Fry to establish the RSVF. “Studying entrepreneurship and innovation enhances students’ analytical and logical skills, enabling them to solve any problem. This type of experience drives economic growth by creating new markets and innovation and contributing to local communities.”
Curtsy co-founders — Allen, Ault, Oates and Clara Agnes Ault, who were named to the Forbes 30 under 30 list in 2021 — spoke Nov. 2 at the sixth annual CIE REDe Entrepreneurship Summit to the Ole Miss community about their entrepreneurial journey. The start provided by the RSVF and the pro-entrepreneurial community at Ole Miss made all the difference in the company’s founding, Allen said.
“From networking and collaborating on business pitches at the Entrepreneur Club to the wonderful office accommodations we were granted at Insight Park, we had a super-solid foundation to get started,” he said. “We built relationships with countless university faculty and local business owners who freely offered guidance, and some of them even became investors.”
Curtsy is a peer-to-peer marketplace, which means it must attract customers to fill both the supply and demand sides of the business.
“These types of companies are notoriously hard to start, but thanks to the strong social aspect of the Ole Miss Greek system, we were able to jump-start our growth as our early customers shared Curtsy with their sorority sisters,” Allen explained.
“My dream was always to create something that people love,” he continued. “Millions have bought or sold something on Curtsy, and I love that I get to work on something every day that’s so important to so many people.”
In addition to Curtsy, other Rebel Student Venture Fund-supported businesses have achieved success. Among these are:
- Rumie App created by Tanner McCraney and Patrick Phillips — a college-exclusive marketplace app that allows students to buy, sell and rent safely and securely within and between campuses.
- SellVNTG, LLC created by Owen Ridgeway, Preston Rollins and David Markham — a digital marketplace for vintage clothing.
- Altar’d Socials created by Claire Ficek — a social media management company that works with service providers to elevate their social media platforms.
- Shielded Security LLC created by Cale Spies — a security company serving the Ole Miss Greek life system, party promoters, campus events and the Oxford community.
- Abbikadabbi’s Baking Co. created by Abbi Nichols — a business offering custom-decorated sugar cookies for any occasion.
The RSVF has been moved from a community foundation to the University of Mississippi Foundation, a development Dibrell said will produce positive results due to quicker disbursement of funds and awards to support the student entrepreneurs.
To support the Rebel Student Venture Fund, send a check to the UM Foundation, with the fund’s name written in the memo line, to 406 University Ave., Oxford, MS 38655; or online here. For information on supporting the fund, contact Angela Brown, senior director of development for the School of Business Administration, at email@example.com or 662-915-3181.
By Tina H. Hahn/UM Development