Whitman’s Panasci Business Competition Awards $40,000 to Emerging Entrepreneurs

Natasha Brao posing with her winner check next to David Panasci

From delicious new food items to cloud management solutions and an innovative digital platform to connect local food producers and consumers, this year’s Panasci Business Plan Competition showcased outstanding ideas from the most innovative, business-minded students across Syracuse University. A campus-wide business plan event hosted annually by the Department of Entrepreneurship and Emerging Enterprises (EEE) at the Whitman School of Management, this year’s competition was held on April 5 and made possible by David Panasci ’80, president of DHP Consulting, and sponsor of the first, second and third place awards; Scott Friedberg ’14, founder and CEO of Gilded Social, sponsor of the Gilded Social Rising Entrepreneur Award; and Nick Monzi ’11, CEO and co-founder of Learn Fresh, sponsor of the Learn Fresh Award for Social Entrepreneurship — new this year.


“The annual Panasci competition is always an exciting day on campus, and this year’s event was no exception, as twice as many students competed this year than in 2023. Students from across the University came together to showcase their innovations and compete for prize money that will help them move their business plans forward,” says Assistant Professor of Entrepreneurship Cristiano Bellavitis, who managed this year’s event. ”Everyone who competed took away valuable feedback from our diverse group of judges, and this year’s winners are certainly on the fast track to making their entrepreneurial goals a reality.”


The 2024 Panasci competition awarded a total of $40,000 in prize money to the winning teams who demonstrated the best potential for growth and attracting outside financing. All competitors submitted written business plans in the semi-final round, and the top teams were brought together to compete in the finals. Whether or not they were selected as winners, every finalist was given specific and valuable feedback from industry professionals involved in the event.


First place and the Gilded Rising Social Entrepreneur Award went to Natasha Brao, ’22 (VPA), ’23 M.S., ’24 MBA, founder of Shooka. She received $20,000 for the first place win and an additional $5,000 for the Gilded Rising Social Entrepreneur Award. Brao’s Shooka is a spiced tomato sauce based on the traditional Mediterranean dish shakshuka, which she first tasted on a trip overseas in 2019. Always one to love the “mixing and melding of cultures to promote creative cooking,” she developed Shooka, formalized her business in 2023 and started selling her product in March 2024.


“The Panasci Business Plan Competition at Whitman is one of the competitions that holds the most weight for me. I was looking forward to it the entire year, and it was amazing to compete alongside dear friends and talented entrepreneurs,” says Brao. “The prize money will help assist me with production, transportation and inventory holding costs, as well as allow me to focus on growing our sales in the next few months. My participation and success in this competition have also led to some valuable new connections in the industry. This gives me further validation for my product and myself as a founder, and I couldn’t be more excited to move forward!”


Second place went to Waqar Hussain ’25 MBA, Fulbright Scholar, founder of Iconnic.cloud, who was awarded $7,500. Iconnic.cloud is a powerful cloud management solution designed for small and mid-sized enterprises (SME) aiming to scale and grow. This platform simplifies the transition of business and web solutions to the cloud, allowing for the effortless deployment and scaling of digital products with the cloud provider of choice. Iconnic.cloud eliminates the need for costly system administrators and IT managers, making cloud technology accessible and cost-effective. This solution not only reduces operational costs but also enhances efficiency, providing SMEs with the tools to innovate and thrive in a digital-first economy. Iconnic.cloud is a product of IconProSolutions, a web wizarding team of designers and developers that “brews magic to power online businesses.”


Third place and $2,500, along with the Learn Fresh Award for Social Entrepreneurship of $5,000, went to Brielle Young ’27 (IST), co-founder and CEO of Aggregate, a digital platform that aims to bridge the gap between producers and consumers in local communities. Through its application, Aggregate empowers producers to share their goods, whether they are artisanal crafts or farm-fresh produce, as well as tell the stories behind their products. In addition, consumers can discover affordable and accessible local goods, all with just a few clicks. Its mission is to foster vibrant communities through local commerce, while equipping local businesses with tools for growth and sustainability. Ezra James, an environmental engineering student at Cornell University, is a co-founder and chief operating officer of Aggregate. The Learn Fresh Award for Social Entrepreneurship is awarded to the innovation that demonstrates the greatest commitment to achieving social impact by addressing a persistent inequity or large-scale societal challenge. Learn Fresh is a nonprofit organization providing STEM learning to empower educators and inspire students.


Judges for this year’s Panasci Business Plan Competition included: Jack Adler ’23, Out2Win Sports; Eric Alderman L’75, adjunct professor, Whitman School; Nassim José Alemany ’09 (MAX), Xolver; Haotian Bai, Patriot Conceptions; Logan Bonney ’17 M.S., West Gen LLC, and Stout Beard Brewing; Bill Brod, All Times Publishing; Blake Brossman ’98 (NEW), PetCareRX; Salvatore (Tory) D’Amelio ’08, president, Selflock Screw Products; Alexander Deyhim, director Invent@SU, and iSchool faculty member; Cody Disch ’10, founder, Arias Advisors; Dustin Doucette, director of operations, Upstate Venture Connect; David Eilers ’80 (NEW), Syracuse University College of Law Innovation Law Center; Jessica Falcone, Jessica Elizabeth Skincare Inc.; James Farrell ’19 Ph.D., East of Nowhere; Ben Ford ’23, Fundwurx; Meghan Florkowski, WISE Women’s Business Center; Scott Friedberg ’14, founder and CEO of Gilded Social; Linda Dickerson Hartsock, founder of Syracuse Blackstone LaunchPad; Lekia Hill, Lekia Tech LLC; Sam Hollander ’21, co-founder and CEO, Share Club; Peter King ’08, Cayuga Economic Development Agency; David S. Klein ’92, owner and president, Greenwood Industries; Jeff Linowes ’77, chief branding officer, HALO Branded Solutions; Kelo Makelele, founder, RedTrace Technologies, Inc.; F. Jasper Massey, commercial loan officer, Empower Federal Credit Union; George Mazevski ’99 (A&S), ’00 MBA, president and CEO, Govsphere Inc.; Nick Monzi ’11, founder and CEO, Learn Fresh; Emad Rahim, Surge entrepreneurship manager, Syracuse Surge Accelerator/CenterState CEO; Joe Noll Jr. ’05, president, National Electronic Transit; Micah Shippee ’16 Ph.D. (EDU), Samsung Electronics America; Don R. Stanton ’03, Tanglewood Gardens; and Vivek Sureddi ’15 (A&S), owner president, VivCon LLC.


Visit Whitman’s website for more information on the Panasci Business Competition.

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