Nonprofit Easy, a Rohnert Park-based developer of a cloud-based software suite tailored for nonprofit companies, took home top honors at the 2012 Business Plan Competition at Sonoma State University June 1, part of the 2012 Innovation Showcase held in collaboration with the Sonoma Mountain Business Cluster, Sonoma County BEST and the broader North Bay iHub.

With the top audience vote, Lomesh Shah, co-founder of the company and its parent, IQR Consulting, took home $2,500. Each of the four finalists were also allowed to select one of four in-kind prizes valued at $5,000, which included legal services, accounting and a six-month office rental .

After working for two years to build the comprehensive platform that integrates staff management, volunteer data and other systems common to nonprofits, Mr. Shah said he hoped that the award would help attract investors and help finance a major expansion.

[caption id="attachment_55738" align="alignright" width="350" caption="Lomesh Shah, co-founder of Nonprofit Easy, poses with Dan Lind of the SMBC board after winning the 2012 Business Plan Competition (photo credit: SSU)"][/caption]

“Our whole goal was to make an easy-to-use operations platform for nonprofits,” Mr. Shah said. “I call it the equivalent of a Swiss Army Knife.”

Ten business proposals were selected from 33 applicants to take part in the competition in late March, with most attending seven hours of business planning workshops provided by the Santa Rosa-based startup consultancy, the 10X Group. Each team received written feedback on draft business plans, as well as one-on-one guidance from a mentor.

“The Innovation Showcase is one way in which we are building the innovation network and creating value-based relationships,” including matching entrepreneurs and mentors, growth companies with investors and students with employers, said Dr. William Silver, dean of Sonoma State’s School of Business and Economics.

A panel of judges evaluated the revised plans, as well as a brief video, and selected the top four average scores to present at the Innovation Showcase.

While a similar business plan competition was held in 2011, this was the inaugural deployment of a new format. The event showcased a number of growing startup and early-stage companies from the region, including green lubricant manufacturer Skip2Renew and Vinperfect, maker of breathable wine bottle closures.

Presenters included past business plan winners, as well as Dr. James Kovach, former chief operating officer of the Buck Institute for Research on Aging and current chief operating officer with mobile analytics startup CrowdOptic.

Other finalists in the business plan competition, at various stages of operation, included Sonoma Hot Cones, a company serving savory food in specialty waffle cones, wine packager Purevin and nonprofit-and-startup-focused web hosting company, Shoestring.

 In-kind prizes for the finalists included corporate legal services from Simon Inman at Carle Mackie Power & Ross, IP legal services from Craig Stainbrook at Stainbrook & Stainbrook and Warren Dranit at Spaulding McCullough & Tansil, accounting services from Dave Dillwood at Dillwood Burkel & Sully and office space at the Sonoma Mountain Business Cluster.

Steve Weiss, chairman Emeritus and co-founder of the North Bay Angels investor group, received the Beta Gamma Medallion for Entrepreneurship at the event, an international award that recognizes business and humanitarian achievement.

Nonprofit Easy currently employs 27, with a local staff of three and 24 employees in India. With approximately 30 clients in the North Bay and nationally, Mr. Shah said that he hoped further investment would allow expansion to 3,500 clients by 2015.

The software, which is oriented towards small-to-medium-size nonprofits under $1 million, is provided at a flat fee, with costs increasing for each additional user.

“They have a fundamentally sound business plan, and they match a strong market need with a product that is efficient, easy to use, and affordable,” Dr. Silver said. “I think their product matched the pulse of the audience – during their presentation they asked how many people in the audience are involved with a nonprofit.  Almost every hand in the room went up.” ***

The Empire College School of Law held its 36th-annual commencement on June 3, with 14 graduates receiving a Juris Doctorate and seven graduating cum laude.

The graduates are: James W. Bourland, Joann Zallen Cleckner, Jolene Renee Costanza, Chadrick James Cunningham, Joshua Jack Darrimon, Timothy John Doherty, Robert Arthur Hulsman, Monica Anne Menco, Courtney Melissa Millstone, Alex James Nichelini, Kevin Thomas O'Connor, Paulette V. Power, Rozann Bateman Smith and Alexander J. Wei.

Graduates of the school, which was founded in 1973, comprise approximately 25 percent of the Sonoma County Bar. Nine alumni currently serve judiciary roles in Sonoma, Napa, Mendocino, Lassen and Merced counties. More than 50 practicing attorneys serve as professors in the program, teaching in their respective specialty areas.

Graduates, predominantly from the Redwood Empire region, are now qualified to take the California General Bar Examination.***

A Sonoma State University psychology undergraduate is among ten recipients statewide of Pacific Gas and Electric Co.’s annual “$1 Million Bright Minds” scholarship, with a full-ride scholarship valued at up to $30,000 per year.

Kara Davis, the recipient, is in her third year of the program. More than 8,000 students applied for the scholarship, and 90 runners-up will receive $2,500 towards their college costs.

The award targets high school seniors, community college and “non-traditional” students that demonstrate drive and civic-mindedness, according to PG&E.

Other organizations have also recently issued scholarships. A Voice Found, based in Yountville, awarded $25,000 to 18 Napa County students through its 2012 Vocational Scholarship Awards. Individual awards were allocated to those pursuing fields such as nursing, business and hospitality, with a goal of addressing the needs of those with obstacles to pursuing higher education.

The Wine Business Institute at Sonoma State University also awarded five MBA students with the annual Donn P. Reisen Memorial Scholarship, which helps to cover the cost of tuition and materials. The scholarship, which began in 2010, was said to be the first of its kind in supporting students studying wine business, strategy and marketing.

The $500,000 endowment for the scholarship, in memory of Mr. Reisen and established by Zinfandel Advocates & Producers in Nevada County, results in approximately $20,000 a year in scholarships.***

Classes begin June 18 for the first foundation course of the Sonoma State University online Wine Business Management Certificate, and the college is accepting applications until June 15.

The new certificate allows participants worldwide to strengthen knowledge of wine business fundamentals, as well as marketing and finance, through the lauded Wine Business Institute.

The course is taught by Tim Hanni, one of the first two Americans to earn the title “Master of Wine.” He joined the department’s faculty to help launch the new online program.

The course runs from June 18 to July 13. To apply, visit www.sonoma.edu/exed/wine-certificate. The foundation course is $580, with an intermediate course offered in the fall....

Submit items for this column to Eric Gneckow, eric.gneckow@busjrnl.com or 707-521-4259.