Bill Marriott accepting EY Entrepreneur of the Year award in 2016. | Photo by Marriott

Do you know an entrepreneur who’s put a lot on the line this year and been very successful because of it? If so, you should consider nominating her for the Ernst & Young Entrepreneur of the Year awards. Act fast, though, the deadline for nominations is tomorrow.

This year, the Ernst & Young Entrepreneur of the Year awards turn 31.

Phoebe Wood, principal at CompaniesWood and former vice chair and chief financial officer of Brown-Forman, has judged the EY Entrepreneur of the Year contest twice regionally and once nationally. Regional judges tend to be former entrepreneurs, investors and business leaders; national judges have expertise in their judging field. Wood’s expertise is energy after serving on the boards of and working for several energy companies.

Wood told IL that the awards are EY’s major “branding,” just like the Oscars, up until this year at least, used to be a big branding moment for PricewaterhouseCoopers.

The awards are “individual human awards,” she said. They’re not honoring companies, but the people in charge and they’re “agnostic as to the industry.” You don’t have to be an EY client to be nominated.

The United States is split up by EY into regions. Louisville belongs to the Ohio Valley Region, which includes Kentucky, southern Ohio and southern Indiana. Last year’s regional winners were Stacy Griggs and David Stadler of El Toro, Purna Veer of V-Soft Consulting and Ankur Gopal of Interapt.

Regional winners advance to the prestigious national awards. Companies must submit financials and other business documents, but on the national level, they also submit videos.

As one of around 40 national judges last year, Wood received all of this material online to review, grade and rank in advance. This is all done online — you can’t even print any of it out. The software that EY uses even tracks how long each judge spends on each part of each application.

“This all culminates in a day at the Kauffman Foundation in Kansas City, Missouri,” she explained.

There, the subject experts — there are 10 categories of businesses to award — are put into teams with other subject experts. Wood said there can be anywhere from five to 15 judges per category. Like a jury, they debate the merits of the way they’ve ranked the submissions.

“Sometimes it’s easy. Sometimes it’s hard,” she said.

Wood said the judging criteria included: financial success, innovation, amount of risk and personal perseverance.

The chair of the team is the person who has judged the longest, which is three years in a row. That person then takes the category winner and serves as its advocate in the best of the year competition, which pits the 10 category winners against each other for top entrepreneur position.

You’d definitely recognize the company names of the winners of some of last year’s top 10 categories. Matt Salzberg, Ilia Papas and Matthew Wadiak lead Blue Apron, the meal kit delivery service. They won for emerging industries. Ben Chestnut is behind MailChimp, who won in the media, entertainment and communications category. James Park won for the technology category for Fitbit.

But it’s not just new and tech-savvy companies whose leaders are recognized by EY. The overall winner of Entrepreneur of the Year was none other than elder statesman J.W. “Bill” Marriott, CEO of Marriott International. Wood said that he won because he oversaw the Marriott-Starwood Hotels merger and took a tremendous risk at an advanced age.

Marriott will now compete against winners from other countries.

Only two Louisvillians have risen to the top of their categories: William Butler of CorpEx, which doesn’t exist anymore, in 1996, and “Papa” John Schnatter of Papa John’s in 1998, according to Wendy Fox, EY’s entrepreneur of the year program manager for the Americas.

The judging takes place in April, but the awards aren’t announced until November. So the judges have to keep it quiet until the Strategic Growth Forum, EY’s signature event that takes place in Palm Springs, Calif.

Wood went to the event last year (national judges attend free) and raved about it. Guest speakers included people as diverse as Will Smith, Joe Montana and Steve Case. There are speeches, workshops, panels, entertainment and more.

But, according to Wood, the most important thing about the forum is the networking (and maybe the swag… just kidding, but she did say that most speakers brought “gifts” for the attendees).

Attendees receive a list of other attendees in advance so they can do their homework and decide who they want to meet face to face. Then when the arrive, EY reps from their region make it their job to help facilitate these meetings. Whether it’s an entrepreneur who wants to meet a funder or a big company who may be thinking about acquiring smaller companies, all of these meetings are just one of the perks of attending and of being either a regional or national winner.

Crain’s called them “the Oscars of Entrepreneurship.” The winners are announced as part of the event.

How else to regional winners benefit from being named an EY Entrepreneur of the Year? Prestige and attention, Wood said. She said the award is like a “seal of approval.”

“The competition is extremely well-run,” she said. “The judges take it very seriously.”

Correction: An earlier version of this article referenced the wrong awards show. It is the Oscars, not the Emmys.



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