Innovation and Service Take the Spotlight at Dean's Leadership Circle Grant Pitch Competition

June 03, 2024 • By The UCI Paul Merage School of Business

Over 100 students, faculty, staff and alumni from the UCI Paul Merage School of Business gathered on April 23 to hear pitches from this year’s finalists for awards through the Dean’s Leadership Circle Grant Initiative.

The DLC Grant Initiative provides students, staff and faculty with a source of funding for research projects and programs that will enhance student opportunities, support academic work, or expand connections with the broader business community.

In his opening remarks, the Merage School Dean Ian Williamson said the DLC Grant Initiative is not only about providing a source of funding for initiatives by members of the Merage community. He said the proposals “provide insights into areas where the school can improve, and also highlight some of the innovations that are going on in the school.”

Each year, the DLC Executive Board reviews grant applications and selects a group of finalists who are invited to make a formal pitch for their proposal. This year’s finalists reflect the breadth of interests one can explore at UCI:

  • Vanessa Marcin and Sarah Yoo, associate directors of career services at the Merage School, described a new initiative to improve career readiness support for transfer students at Merage. Two core features of the initiative would be a career assessment offered during orientation to help transfer students identify their ideal career paths, and special recruitment readiness workshops held over the summer.

  • UCI Assistant Professor of Finance Jinfei Sheng proposed a new research project that would leverage artificial intelligence to analyze high volumes of textual financial data to identify patterns that may indicate fraud. He said the goal of the project would be to develop methodologies that regulators and others could use to more easily detect potential wrongdoing.

  • UCI undergraduates Leland Bartikofsky and Christian Mendoza cofounded the Irvine Investment and Trading Group, a club for UCI students interested in pursuing careers at top-tier financial institutions. They proposed the creation of a stock pitch competition, which they explained would give participants an advantage with employers and enhance the school’s profile.

  • Undergraduate Lauren Delgado of the UCI Marketing Association proposed a project to pair students interested in learning about marketing with local small businesses. She said the program would create opportunities for students to gain real-world experience working with tools like social media and graphic design, while also supporting the local business community.

  • Merage School student Josh Ling proposed an initiative he calls Omni Glasses, a source of low-cost, sustainable eyeglasses for children. The nonprofit organization has developed a plan to deliver glasses for around $5 a pair, making prescription glasses for kids affordable.

  • Gam Cao, president of UCI’s Human resources Management Association, proposed funding for expanded initiatives including providing students with access to Clifton Strengths Assessments and an HR case study competition. Funds would also support the organization’s memberships and outreach efforts.

  • Merage School Associate Professor of Information Systems Vibhanshu Ahbishek proposed a fresh exploration of using generative AI to improve student learning. His plan is to tackle issues including limitations on access to resources, information overload, and administrative burdens. The project would deliver personalized learning resources, assist with content navigation, and automate administrative tasks.

  • Alexandria Hightower presented the UCI Black Management Association’s proposal to host a leadership workshop in October led by CEO and author Michelle Beauchamp. This initiative follows last year's successful "Making Great First Impressions" series and aims to equip students with essential leadership skills for career advancement.

  • Sam Yousafi, an alumnus and steering committee member of the UCI Leadership Experience and Development Success (LEADS) program, presented the program’s pitch for additional funding to support its long-term sustainability. LEADS cultivates self-aware, communicative leaders through guest speakers, alumni mentors, and engagement with the business community.

  • UCI undergraduate Katheryn Tran, director of finance and internal at the UCI Financial Literacy Association, pitched her organization’s proposal to promote financial literacy across campus through workshops, free resources, and a stock-picking competition.

After careful deliberation, the judges decided to award a record-breaking $56,000 in grants to all ten finalists, six of whom were fully funded. The perfect record reflects the strength of the proposals and their alignment with the mission of the Dean’s Leadership Circle to support efforts to enhance the UCI community.

The Dean’s Leadership Circle (DLC) network consists of hundreds of business leaders, international enterprises, alumni, and friends of UC Irvine and the Merage School, whose donations directly fund the grant programs and projects awarded each year at the Pitch Competition.

If you are interested in supporting the DLC Grant Initiative or wish to become a DLC member, please contact Director of Development Kevin Crabb at to learn more.