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Nov. 6, 2020
Brigit Blote was just trying to find a thrift store T-shirt.
It led to a business venture that could land her and her USD teammates a $1 million prize.
The three women are global finalists for the Hult Prize, an award for an entrepreneurial venture from college students that addresses a pressing social issue.
Brigit Blote, Payton Ryz, Ashlynn Atwood
To get here, they’ve competed against teams from Harvard, MIT, Duke and others – and won.
“It was crazy. We are still shocked by it,” said Blote, a junior from Rapid City majoring in sustainability, and innovation and entrepreneurship.
It all started while she was studying abroad in Costa Rica two summers ago.
“When they told us to pack, they said you literally are going to have to climb up to this community you’re living in, so don’t pack very much. So everybody recycled the same clothes.”
That meant she saw one T-shirt on her friend – a lot – and decided she wanted one like it. It showed a purple forget-me-not flower, so when Blote returned to the U.S., she started searching. And a business was born.
“I started jumping online to online thrift shops … and I realized there were thousands of thrift shops online,” she said. “Why isn’t this easier? Why can’t I jump online and find this instantly and compare it on sites? We should make this mainstream. Type in clothing you’re looking for, and search all these thrift shops at one time.”
So she teamed up with senior Ashlynn Atwood, a Beresford native who specializes in design, and junior Payton Ryz, who specializes in communications and grew up in Canada, and they decided to compete in the 2020 Hult Prize, starting with a competition at USD.
“We ended up winning that round, and it was literally just an idea,” Blote said. “That’s how much of them start at the university level. You show your business model, you show your plan of action, and if it’s a good enough idea, you can move on to the regional level.”
It was a good enough idea.
Fomeno, which incorporates letters from forget-me-not, now is being developed as an app that will help shoppers browse multiple thrift stores. It taps into both the desire GenZ and millennials have to shop thrift stores and the social concerns the Hult Prize is designed to address by supporting the sustainability of reusing clothing.
“When you get to the regional, a lot of these teams are already generating revenue. We weren’t doing that yet, but we ended up winning the Boston regional in March,” Blote said. “Even there, we didn’t have a functioning app yet, we were talking with developers, but it was just the gravity of our idea they loved so much, and the scalability of an app is just unreal, and they realized how big it could be.”
From there, they were supposed to travel to London for a five-week accelerator before competing as one of 30 teams in a field that started at 300,000.
The pandemic put that on hold, but instead the teams have been preparing through an online accelerator for what the Hult Prize promises eventually will be an in-person competition, Blote said.
“We’re getting so much more time to build our business and mentorship,” she said. “We pitch every Friday, and we get ranked every week based off our pitch and how much we’ve grown as a company. It’s really intense, but it’s also so fun.”
They’re also succeeding.
“We’ve placed top three four weeks out of 12, which was super cool,” Blote said. “And these companies are amazing. The bottom three teams are still amazing and generating so much revenue I don’t know how the judges end up picking.”
For example, a team from Mexico City has created a “smog-eating” billboard and is partnering with Coca-Cola, she said.
“Our competitors are crazy good, and it’s really inspiring. They push us forward,” she said.
Today marks the final Friday competition, where three finalists will be selected for a 10-person Global Showcase event to present to investors live on YouTube on Nov. 18. The remaining seven competitors for that event will be chosen through various votes and contests.
The in-person global Hult Prize finals, with the $1 million prize, haven’t been scheduled yet.
“Ultimately, we’re not in this anymore to win the $1 million. All these teams are so good,” Blote said. “But the knowledge and experience and networking connections we’re gaining through the Hult Prize are so valuable and allowed us to believe this is not just an idea for a little student competition. This is a company that has so much potential for impact, and it’s so exciting to see it come to life.”
The app is scheduled to launch this winter. Atwood graduates in December and is going “to take over a lot” as the others do their best to juggle school with their startup launch, Blote said.
“We’re really excited to see where it can scale to,” she said. “We’re from South Dakota, and I love our state, and it’s just really exciting. I feel like there’s so much support for other South Dakotans to do well. We love our state and love being able to represent it.”
The Fomeno team is doing some crowdfunding to supports its launch and help cover travel costs to the eventual in-person Hult Prize global finals.
Three USD students will represent the U.S. as they compete for a $1 million entrepreneurship prize.