Q: How do I evaluate participating in entrepreneurship competitions?

A: Business-plan competitions are an excellent, low-cost and low-risk way to jump-start your efforts. Participating in a business-plan competition forces the would-be entrepreneur to think through all aspects of their business, and many competitions have useful resources on their websites, including how-tos as well as videos of previous competitions so you can review winning pitches.

Participating in a competition can also provide a good reason to identify and reach out to mentors as you prepare your submission. Should you make it into a semifinals round, you will have the opportunity to pitch your concept live and receive feedback from panels of experienced entrepreneurs and other business professionals. Most competitions also provide cash awards.

Almost all universities with entrepreneurship programs have at least one competition. For instance, we have recently completed our annual Fowler Business Concept Challenge. Students from all academic programs, both graduate and undergraduate, shared their new venture ideas, took Q&A from experienced entrepreneurs and other business leaders who served as judges, and received valuable feedback on their ideas. And competing teams took home $86,000 in scholarship prizes.

But you don't have to be a student to participate in a venture competition. Many other organizations, including private foundations and government entities, sponsor business plan competitions. For instance, the MN Cup is a community-led, public-private partnership that has awarded nearly $3 million in seed funds to winning ventures since the competition began in 2005.

The Schulze School of Entrepreneurship sponsors four competitions each year. Why do we dedicate so many resources to these? Because venture competitions are an invaluable way for all students to get outside their comfort zones, stretch their entrepreneurial imaginations, develop critical business skills and expand their professional networks. For students who are seriously interested in starting their businesses, these events provide the support and guidance they need to flesh out, test and strengthen their ideas.

Laura Dunham is associate dean of the Schulze School of Entrepreneurship at the University of St. Thomas Opus College of Business.