A Pickleball Hobby Became Their Business. How Darden Is Helping Them With Next Steps

April 2, 2024 By Andrew Ramspacher, fpa5up@virginia.edu Andrew Ramspacher, fpa5up@virginia.edu

In the beginning, it was only a hobby for Ellie Jamison and Grace Collins. 

As first-year students in the University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business in the fall of 2022, the pair bonded over trips to the Snyder Tennis Center courts to play pickleball. The sport, which had become an established activity on Grounds, was new to Jamison and Collins as each was coming from big cities where they said it wasn’t as popular. 

“But we just started playing pickleball and fell in love with it,” Jamison said. 

Jamison, who earned her bachelor’s degree from UVA’s Frank Batten School of Leadership and Public Policy in 2018 and spent her pre-Darden years working in San Francisco, and Collins, who graduated from the University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business in 2017 and worked in Los Angeles before enrolling at Darden, are now the co-founders of Play Henry, a pickleball paddle company. 

They first saw pickleball as a way to exercise and make new friends. Two years later, pickleball is what consumes their lives 40 hours a week through Play Henry. 

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“If we are not in class,” Collins said, “we are meeting about the business, selling, or working on expansion efforts for the future. We are constantly thinking about the business.”

On April 12, on the Darden Sands Family Grounds outside Washington, their task will be to listen, connect and engage as Darden presents its inaugural Venture Capital Conference. Participants will explore the landscape of venture capital and how market conditions are affecting the space from a limited partners, general partners and entrepreneurial perspective. 

Program speakers will also detail to Darden students how limited partners invest amid current market conditions and how entrepreneurs can successfully pitch to venture capitalists.

The timing couldn’t be better for Jamison and Collins, who are on track to graduate in May and are preparing to ramp up fundraising efforts, taking on Play Henry full-time. 

“The Venture Capital Conference is important for anyone interested in venture, fundraising and networking,” said Jamison, the president of Darden’s Entrepreneurship and Venture Capital Club, which helped plan the conference. “It will set a precedent that venture capital is a viable career path for UVA students and alumni willing to invest significant time and energy in the space.”

Candid Picture of Ellie Jamison and Grace Collins
Collins and Jamison say they spend 40 hours a week on Play Henry, which they operate out of Collins’ basement. (Photo by Matt Riley, University Communications)

Saul Waller, a 2013 Darden graduate who is now the managing director for Columbia Partners Private Capital, will be one of five speaking on the limited partners’ panel. He said it’s key for students like Jamison and Collins – before they take on the next step in their careers – to learn about venture capital from those operating in the space. 

“The type of financing depends on the type of business,” Waller said. “There are a lot of venture capitalists who don’t fit the Silicon Valley archetype. It’s the people who fund small businesses. There’s a lot of businesses like that who create a lot of value for the people who run them, and they’re financed completely different than maybe a tech startup.” 

Jamison and Collins earned $5,000 in February for Play Henry after taking first place in Darden’s Entrepreneurship Cup. Jamison said that money is being used to help fund the company’s marketing and growth efforts. 

Play Henry, a company licensed with the University to produce pickleball paddles, offers in its collection “The Hoo,” a white paddle featuring a UVA logo that can be found in the Charlottesville area at the Boar’s Head Resort, the C’ville Tennis Pro Shop and on its website.

Aside from their current retail collection, Jamison and Collins have expanded their business to include custom paddles for weddings, events and corporate gifts. Play Henry’s slogan is “From Court to Cocktail.” They have a long-term aim of morphing Play Henry into an apparel company.

 

 

“Pickleball is changing the way that people view activity,” Collins said. “We've seen huge demand from brides who have decided to include a pickleball event in their wedding weekend festivities or companies who are inspiring their employees to get active and want a beautiful, bespoke paddle."

Jamison said she came to Darden because she thought it had the best resources to help her accomplish her goal of starting a business. With that mission long completed, Jamison and Collins are continuing to benefit from the Darden resources that can help them grow a business. 

“Beyond the incredible curriculum here – I’ve learned so much – I’m just amazed at the network here,” Jamison said, “and how everyone is incredibly generous and knowledgeable.”

They said they’ve received invaluable mentorship at Darden from entrepreneurship professors such as Jim Zuffoletti. “We rely on his expertise and experience constantly,” Collins said of Zuffoletti, who is also an entrepreneur in residence at UVA's Licensing & Ventures Group. “We consider ourselves lucky to be able to go to Jim with anything from questions about fundraising to sales questions. He is so generous with his time.”

Even more guidance is ahead at the Venture Capital Conference, where panelists will include Darden alumni. 

“The venture capital industry is mainly relationship- and network-driven,” Jamison said. “And so having the common connection of Darden, and alumni understanding what you went through for two years – it’s a bonding experience. 

“These types of connections will drive placements for aspiring venture capitalists in the industry and assure successful fundraising for founders seeking venture capital money. It is that critical.” 

Media Contact

Andrew Ramspacher

University News Associate University Communications