Erin Czadzeck, a student in SUNY Oswego’s master of business administration (MBA) program, recently earned second place in the software and services category of the New York State Business Plan Competition for Insight, an app that would help fellow blind and visually impaired people pick out clothes independently and create outfits every morning.

Czadzeck was diagnosed with retinitis pigmentosa at age 4 and continued to lose her sight on her way to adulthood. She has remained active as an employment specialist at a residential facility for youth, as well as an advocate for visually impaired individuals, and this concept came out of her drive and passion.

Also a SUNY Oswego 2010 graduate with a degree in public justice, Czadzeck’s concept started during professor Sarah Bonzo’s “Principles of Agile and Design Thinking" class.

“As part of that class, we had to come up with something in our personal or professional life that we wanted to improve or a problem we wanted solved,” Czadzeck said. “Before the competition even came about, the problem that I determined was that blind and visually impaired people don’t have an accurate and consistent single solution to identifying clothing and having outfits put together. I have been working through that this whole semester.”

The course is all about putting the user first and showing empathy, and Czadzeck has excelled with that in this project, Bonzo noted.

“Erin has made significant progress with a really valid idea,” Bonzo said. “It’s clear that she was really onto something. And she has been really into advancements in technology, ChatGPT and image-to-text developments.”

Czadzeck thought about her own challenges and conducted interviews and research with others in the visually impaired community.

“There are certain things that I do to identify my clothing,” Czadzeck said. “But I just get frustrated every morning when I have to ask my husband or hope my 4-year-old knows his colors for the day.”

Some technologies do exist in this space, such as Braille tags and services that pair people with a stranger via video chat, but no one solution allows people to take a picture and immediately have a description of that clothing or an outfit created for the user.

“There are also wardrobe apps for the sighted community, but they are super complicated as they put outfits together for people who can see,” Czadzeck explained. “I wanted to take all of those things, I wanted to take the advancements in image-to-text-recognition and AI and ChatGPT and throw all of it into one app or one single solution.”

Irene Scruton, assistant dean of business and director of SUNY Oswego’s MBA programs, let Bonzo know about the business plan competition, and Bonzo contacted Czadzeck just before the deadline. Czadzeck took up the challenge enthusiastically.

“She has this ‘I’m in’ mentality,” Bonzo said. “She’s always up for a challenge and confident she can figure it out.”

Steep competition

The New York State Business Plan Competition starts with around 400 competitors and only a dozen earn awards in the statewide competition, the top two in six categories.

The road to the finals in Albany started with the Central New York Regional Business Plan competition, hosted by SUNY Oswego’s School of Business at the university’s Syracuse Campus. 

SUNY Oswego students competed against entrepreneurs from the likes of Syracuse, Cornell and Colgate universities, but Czadzeck’s concept and enthusiasm rose through the steep competition to advance. She then made it past the preliminary state round to make it to the finals on April 25 in Albany.

“She’s the first SUNY Oswego student to make it that far,” Scruton said. “I can’t overemphasize what an amazing achievement this is.”

Czadzeck said Bonzo and Scruton made a huge difference in preparing for the competition and ultimate success.

“They are the ones that planted the seed and have been supportive,” she said. “They’re like my hype team. They are the ones that really got the ball rolling and said, ‘You’ve got this. Let’s do it.’ They’ve been instrumental and I’m super grateful for them and everyone else who has been part of the journey.”

At the state finals, competitors had to be on their game, as 10 teams in the software and services category presented to four judges –- all with industry experience –- and answered up to eight minutes of questions.

“She probably pitched it to me more than 50 times, and we kept working on revising it,” Bonzo said. “Even the night before, we were working on it in the hotel. She got some sage advice from her 4-year-old son about what to do if she got nervous.”

“He told me to take a deep breath and say, ‘I can do this!’” Czadzeck recalled.

“I was really nervous about the questions,” Czadzeck said, but she navigated it with knowledge and humor. “Two of the judges came up to me after and said ‘Great job.’ They were really impressed, they loved the idea, so that made me feel really good.”

“She crushed it,” Bonzo said. “She hit every single point but also kept her voice. The body language of everybody in the room was amazing –- they were all leaning forward and smiling. You could see a difference in how engaged they were with Erin’s presentation.”

During a break, a whole line of people were waiting to speak with Czadzeck about possible partnerships and other ideas, Bonzo said. “It was really cool to see,” Bonzo recalled.

“The authentic voice of Erin is very compelling,” Bonzo said. “She can explain why this is very important. She does a great job of balancing addressing the details while also telling the story.”

The main reason Czadzeck only came in second was that she was competing against much more experienced teams that had existing businesses, some with well-established revenue streams. “I’ve been working on this for just three months while they’ve been working on their products for years,” Czadzeck noted.

Pursuing the MBA

For Czadzeck, going back to school, and specifically for SUNY Oswego’s highly rated online MBA program, was about exploring how to use her existing people skills and empathy in fulfilling ways in the business world.

“I never thought of myself as a business person, but I always wanted to be in some type of management someday,” Czadzeck said. “I wanted something that had room for growth.”

She applied for SUNY Oswego’s online MBA when her son was two-and-a-half years old and started classes right before his third birthday.

“Life clearly wasn’t challenging enough working full-time and having a two-and-a-half-year-old, so I decided I wanted to go back to school full-time while doing those things,” Czadzeck said.

“I really wanted to prove to my son that you can do anything you want to do as long as you set your mind to it, and to reach for the stars,” she added. “My husband and my family are big motivators along the way as well.”

The business plan competition was an unexpected bonus, but the bond between Czadzeck and Bonzo made the coursework and process enjoyable and rewarding.

“I feel like we just hit it off in our first meeting” before classes started, Czadzeck said. “She was very personable, very willing to help out and accommodate in any way possible.”

Bonzo appreciates the opportunity to build friendships with students like Czadzeck, and that has made this journey extra special.

“It’s been fun,” Bonzo said. “It’s been really exciting for us both. She’s come so far this semester.”

The collaboration will continue with Czadzeck’s capstone project next semester – with the $2,000 in prize money from the state competition helping seed the product development.

“I’m going to work on this project more and work on my business plan and just pursue it more because I feel like it’s a very important need in the community and I don’t want to just stop after this competition,” Czadzeck said.

“This isn’t the end of the road for me,” Czadzeck said. “I met a ton of investors. I’ve met some really great people along the process, but mostly in Albany, I was introduced to a lot of people that are super interested in my idea, a couple of people who want me to reach out regarding their programs or if they can help out in any way.”

“She’s amazing,” Bonzo said. “We’re so fortunate to have her in our program. She’s going to do great things. And she does it all with grace and a sense of humor.”

“I’m just more driven and fueled and passionate than I’ve ever been and am 100 percent going to continue pursuing this and reaching out to people,” Czadzeck said.