The Science Center buzzed with alumni and students gathered for the annual Lax Conference for Entrepreneurship on Saturday. This year, the business pitch portion of SwatTank, Swarthmore’s first business plan competition, made its big-time debut in the usual lineup of discussions and lectures.
The pitch was the conclusion of SwatTank, a play on the reality show SharkTank, a business plan competition that was sponsored by Career Services, the Dean’s Office, the President’s Office, the Center for Innovation and Leadership, and the Lax Conference. Saturday afternoon, members of three final teams presented their business ideas in front of an audience and a panel of judges in Sci 101.
The judges announced Jalisa Roberts ’13 the winner for her proposed summer program for middle schoolers, The Cocoon Youth Empowerment Program, based in New Orleans East.
“Entrepreneurship is breaking the mold from conventional thinking. Ordinarily people think entrepreneurship is about making profit, which isn’t really Swarthmore,” judge Iqbal Quadir ’81, founder of the largest telecommunications provider in Bangladash and founder and director of the Legatum Center for Development and Entrepreneurship at MIT, said. “Swarthmore provided me the encouragement to think of new ideas, outside of the box,” Quadir said.
At last year’s conference, an alum suggested the idea of a competition to the Entrepreneurship Club (E-Club). This year, five members of the club approached Career Services, who coincidentally had the same idea as well. The club got word out about the competition out, gave the competition structure, and communicated with alums.
“We found it very entrepreneurial to be setting up the competition,” said Antony Kaguara ‘15, a member of E-Club. The competition “was kind of like a start-up in itself. Writing out the idea, getting a product together, and selling it to students. We didn’t expect that many,” he said.
Beginning with a call for proposals in October, the 11 competing teams created business plans and attended webinars each month in which alumni gave guidance on different business issues, eventually concluding with Saturday’s judging. All team members had alumni mentors and were given guidance on a range of issues including idea generation, business plan writing, financing, pitching, and networking.
Career Services Associate Director Erin Massey and Assistant Director Jennifer Barrington worked with E-Club to create the program. “Without their energy and without their initiative and dedication to make this happen, it would not have happened,” Massey said.
As the teams got more involved, Career Services took on more of an administrative role, making sure the teams were prepared and ensuring that the event ran smoothly.
The business pitch portion of the competition was moderated by Shalom Saar ’74, professor of leadership and management at the MIT Center for Transportation and Logistics. The four judges, including Joe Turner ’73, Terrence Hicks ’73, Karen Meidlinger, and Quadir all are leaders in the field of entrepreneurship.
The SwatTank finalists—Roberts, Christopher Fortunato ’14, Ian Anderson ’13, Kyle Pierce ’14, and Chelsea Hicks ’14—gave four-minute pitches on their business plans before responding to questions posed by the judges and the audience.
“All of these students are winners, they came up with these ideas, developed them, presented them effectively. There was so much professional and personal growth,” Massey said.
The proposals varied widely both in terms of the type of problem tackled and the means of solving it. Roberts’ proposal was for a six-week summer program for middle schoolers, an extension to The Cocoon, a non-profit she founded three years ago. The Cocoon is intended to bring resources into post-Hurricane Katrina New Orleans, near where she grew up. Roberts is a dancer and her summer program would give middle schoolers an introduction to the basics of dance as well as test preparation.
Fortunato, noting the health risks of sitting at desks for long periods of time, pitched the idea of the RiseDesk, a sitting-standing desk converter that could be placed on top of a traditional desk.
Pierce, Anderson, and Hicks, noticing that more and more men are becoming fashion conscious but unable to afford quality shoes, pitched an online men’s shoe boutique that would provide high-end designs at a low cost.
Although the team of three had been thinking about this idea for a while, SwatTank gave them a context in which to do it.
“I hadn’t really thought about entrepreneurship. It just seemed like a great opportunity that I shouldn’t pass up. It was never really in my plans until this came on,” Anderson said.
In the judging of their plan, the trio was asked questions about financing and product uniqueness. They were also given suggestions for improvement.
“The best part of it was actually presenting and getting the great feedback, the people who gave us insights we weren’t even thinking about,” Hicks said.
In fact, some said they felt Swarthmore’s values were essential for the competition. “If we went to a business school, my approach to it would have been a narrow focus, rather than an interdisciplinary overall look at what this could be.” Hicks said.
Qadir agreed, saying, “As Swarthmore doesn’t have a business major, I was impressed that the students thought about contemporary business issues.”
The judges, alumni, and students all seemed to think that SwatTank was a successful addition to the Lax Conference lineup this year. “Being at a liberal arts institution, we don’t necessarily get opportunities to engage in business-oriented things. So being able to meet Swatties who are out in the world of business is refreshing and interesting,” Roberts said.
“We were definitely inspired by the conference and the contacts that we have made. It gave us the hope and momentum to keep going,” Pierce said. “SwatTank showed us that if you have an idea and you have a passion, there is a way to bring that passion to life and work with it in any way you see fit.”
Photo courtesy of The Lax Conference for Entrepreneurship.