March is a month of madness in Chapel Hill. Tournaments and brackets are the talk of the town, bars and restaurants are packed with fans and conjecture of upsets and championships abound. It’s no surprise that the Carolina Challenge, UNC’s premier entrepreneurship pitch competition, would coincide with March Madness. That energy and competitive (but friendly) spirit were on full display last Thursday evening at the Carolina Inn for the Carolina Challenge finals

The Challenge started with 65 teams in February in three different tracks—for-profit, social/not-for-profit, and alumni/faculty/grad/staff. The first two rounds of the Challenge eliminated all but four from each track who had the opportunity to pitch on Thursday evening to decide the winners. The winners from each track received $5,000 and a comically large Happy Gilmore-style check to display. Like the college basketball tournament traditionally held in March, the Challenge had its share of Cinderella stories, dominant title contenders and upsets. 

Here’s the rundown on some of the teams you should know. 

The Cinderella Story: 

The winner of the for-profit track was Lisa Li and her venture Open Oceans, an online platform to connect small and medium-sized exporters to ocean liners. Think Expedia for exporters. 
Li’s victory on Thursday was a bit of a surprise to casual observers. At the Pitch Party, the Challenge’s kick-off event in November, Open Oceans did not even place in the top 10. At the finals on Thursday, it was easy to see how Li rose to the Challenge. She was poised, confident and in command of the facts. 

Atkinson left with her head held high. She impressed the judges and took home a check for $1,000 with a third place finish. Native Beverage, SUCCEED and Seal the Seasons are all members of The CUBE, UNC’s social innovation incubator. 

Sweet Victory: 

The alumni and faculty track was won by Tom and Jenny’s, a husband and wife team who have created a delicious sugar-free candy that is actually good for your teeth. While their pitch was fantastic, I’m sure it didn’t hurt that they handed out free candy to the judges. They also do not lack in the credibility department. Sindhura “Jenny” Citineni is a practicing dentist and Tommy Thekkekandam is an MBA who worked as a consultant with McKinsey before quitting to work on the venture full-time. 

Tom and Jenny’s is a part of Launch Chapel Hill, an accelerator program created by Chapel Hill, Orange County and UNC. 


After the prizes were handed out and final speeches made, attendees rushed home and to Franklin Street bars to watch the Tar Heels take on the Wisconsin Badgers in a Sweet 16 matchup. Despite the Heels’ valiant effort, they lost a close game, leaving fans disappointed but very much looking forward to next season. As with basketball, for the young entrepreneurs who fell a bit short in the Carolina Challenge, there’s always next year.