Sara Wall of Martinsville (front, center) took the top prize in this year's RISE Collegiate Business Plan Competition. Photo courtesy of RISE Collaborative.
Sara Wall of Martinsville (front, center) took the top prize in this year's RISE Collegiate Business Plan Competition. Photo courtesy of RISE Collaborative.

A Patrick & Henry Community College student secured the top spot in a regional business competition by bringing environmental concerns to the forefront. 

Sara Wall of Martinsville received $1,000 in funding as the winner of the RISE Collegiate Business Plan Competition, a contest in which the business plans of students from across southern Virginia are pitted against one another to determine who has the most revolutionary idea. Wall’s winning business pitch was Swam, a retail store that connects consumers to environmentally safe products.  

Sara Wall

The second competition in as many years, it was held at Hampden-Sydney College in Farmville on March 23. It was sponsored by the RISE Collaborative

This year’s competition included participants from Averett University, Longwood University, Hampden-Sydney and Patrick & Henry. Last year’s Martinsville participant came in third. 

The competition was somewhat analogous to the show “Shark Tank,” where entrepreneurs pitch their ideas to possible investors, said Michael Scales, one of the coaches who helps students polish their proposals before presenting them. He’s a professor at Longwood, where he teaches mathematics and workforce development, and he also oversees the Longwood Small Business Development Center.

This year’s crop of business pitches included ideas from 12 student entrepreneurs, Scales said. He worked with Wall on her idea, and said that while he was impressed with the other student participants, she was a clear standout. 

“The theory is it’s best to get people ready with a business plan and get rid of all the potholes,” Scales said. “A lot of things can go wrong, or right, and you need to be prepared for it.” 

He said he enjoyed working with Wall and believes there is merit to her idea. 

Wall, who’s studying business, later added that Scales introduced her to skills like identifying and contacting vendors. 

“How do you keep your customers coming back, how do you keep things fresh?” Wall said. “How do you get the repeat customers?”                 

Wall said a store focusing on eco-friendly items, like biodegradable toys and knick-knacks or non-polluting cleaning items, is more novel than people realize.  

“It’s an eco-friendly retail store,” Wall said. “It’s all sustainable, biodegradable, non-plastic and recyclable items, and it’s all under one roof.” 

For taking the top spot Wall received a cash prize of $1,000, earmarked for the purpose of turning her pitch to reality. She hopes to open Swam in the Martinsville-Henry County area but doesn’t have a concrete date, citing a number of expenses, like inventory and venue space,  she needs to cover before she starts selling eco-friendly wares. 

For the time being, she wants to continue focusing on her education. 

Scales said he is confident Wall will make a splash in the coming years and adds that the RISE Competition will likely do the same for years to come. Speaking on Martinsville’s success in this year’s competition, he said the city is no different from larger ones. 

“It doesn’t matter who you are or where you come from,” Scales said. “If you put in the hard work … you can convince people that your ideas are not only viable but will succeed.” 

Dean-Paul Stephens is a reporter for Cardinal News. He is based in Martinsville. Reach him at