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Fund Brings Life to Students’ Ideas, Honors Alumnus’s Memory

Phyllis Flynn ’71 and the 2024 Johnny Flynn Paladin Pitch Award Winner Lilly Woo ’24. The award is named for Flynn’s late husband, a 1969 Furman graduate.

Last updated April 29, 2024

By Mary Mikell

As the Hill Institute for Innovation and Entrepreneurship prepared to host its fifth annual Paladin Pitch competition April 11, Furman entrepreneurs finalized their best and brightest ideas in hopes of winning the Johnny Flynn ’69 Paladin Pitch Award. The competition’s grand prize invests $10,000 in the winning business venture.

But who was Johnny Flynn? The prize’s namesake was a beloved Furman alumnus with a mind for innovation and a heart for mentoring the next generation of business leaders. The fund was established by his fraternity brothers and friends – all members of a tightknit group that has reunited each year at the home of Flynn and his wife, Phyllis Flynn ’71, since 1972.

“When Johnny passed two years ago, the group wanted to do something to honor our friend in perpetuity,” said Benny Walker ’71, a senior associate for the Riley Institute’s Diversity Leaders Initiative. “And this award resonated because he was a true entrepreneur who was always creating new and different things.”

Flynn owned and managed multiple businesses, while developing and investing in numerous real estate properties. Always working toward his next venture, he made a point to set aside time to pour into Furman students and young alumni – what Phyllis described as the true “excitement of his life.”

“One of the things I admired so much about him was how he mentored people,” she recalled. “He’d take them to breakfast and give them the ins and outs of real estate. And if he saw someone in a Furman shirt, he would buy their breakfast and say, ‘Come on by my office, I’d love to hear more about what you’re doing and see if there’s any way I can help you or someone I can introduce you to.’”

Several people celebrate with a big check and gold confetti.

Lilly Woo ’24 won the 2024 Paladin Pitch Competition for her company Woo Milk.

The fund, which now totals nearly $150,000, embodies both Flynn’s entrepreneurial spirit and his passion for investing in young minds. Through additional private support, the growing fund would become endowed to ensure students can compete for the $10,000 award each year. For that, the fund needs to reach $200,000 to be fully endowed, a task Furman’s development office is working on.

“It was important to Johnny and to me that we never failed to give every year, and this fund represents how connected the Furman family is,” Phyllis said. “I want students to know that there are so many alumni out there who want to help. And if you can find even one – what a resource that could be for you.”

Last year’s winners were Spencer Tate ’24 and Nemath Ahmed of Georgia Tech, co-founders of the software platform dotflo, an AI-based tool that helps businesses research potential customers.

This year’s final saw five teams pitching their most innovative entrepreneurial endeavors to  two judges: Tate and Kylie Felker ’09, president and principal of Foster Victor Wealth Advisors in Greenville,, as well as an audience composed of students, faculty, alumni and community leaders.

The winner, Lilly Woo, won the prize for Woo Milk, a product she hopes to produce that will be plant based and high in protein. Alice Tyszka ’25 won second place and $2,000; Conor Dowler ’24 won third place, the Crowd Choice award, and received $1,000.

Phyllis Flynn was there to make welcoming remarks. After the presentations she took to the stage again to cheer on all the student participants. When Woo was announced as the winner, shiny gold confetti showered them all and Flynn applauded with joy.

“The Paladin Pitch is a hallmark of the new educational system,” Walker said. “It allows people who are studying theories, processes and coursework to apply that to a project that can lead to a monetary award – and not only that, but an education where they can come out and hit the ground running.”



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