Students knock out pitch competition

Waeve, a business pitched by Tiso McGinty ’19, Kiki Laino ’18, Susana Hawken ’18 and Mary Imevbore ’18 won first place. Photo courtesy of Kai Cash.

On March 4, the College hosted its seventh annual Venture Pitch Competition, which was organized by Tonio Palmer, the Career Center’s new Entrepreneur in Residence. This was my first year as an observer of the event rather than a participant.

There were five teams, comprised of a total of 17 participants, and three judges. The teams competed for a first-place prize of $15,000 and a second-place prize of $5000 to be used to further develop winning ideas during the summer. Teams were given eight minutes to present their ideas to an audience of students, alumni, faculty and staff. Additionally, they were given 10 minutes to defend their ideas during a question and answer session with the judges.

Waeve, a customer service-centric and branded hair product business serving African-American women pioneered by Mary Imevbore ’18, Tiso McGinty ’19, Kiki Laino ’18 and Susana Hawken ’18 came in first place. Second place went to MediForm, a personal app to store  one’s medical information. The team members were Negasi Haskins ’20, Tiffany Tien ’20, R.J. Shamberger ’20 and Julius Dodson ’21. Skylar Chaney ’19.5 and Ellyn Pier ’19 landed in third place, returning for a second year with an idea to help post-concussion sufferers find the best treatment.

Other teams included Momenta Fitness, a sports fitness tracking app pitched by Eddy Varela ’20, Tafara Makaza ’20 and Arslay Joseph ’20 and Hitch, a ride sharing service for the Williams community. The Hitch team consisted of Ben Morton ’19, Brendon Seyfried ’19, Clayton Mizgerd ’21 and Sebastian Dziadkiewicz ’19.

Each team was paired with an alumni mentor and met with Palmer several times to refine its pitch. This event has a long history at the College of producing successful entrepreneurs with innovative ideas. In years prior, it was called the Williams Business Challenge. The format of the Williams Business Challenge was not fundamentally different from this year’s Venture Pitch Competition; it was similarly an opportunity for students to pitch ideas as teams to a panel of alumni for a chance to win cash prizes to start their businesses. In the months leading up to the competition, students were mentored by College alumni and other professionals working in the industry most pertinent to the idea of the respective team. In addition, students had to write and submit business plans to be considered for the prize.

The event changed under Palmer’s leadership. Utilizing the “lean start-up” and “design thinking” methods, he wanted to give students the chance to learn how to develop ideas into viable concepts that could potentially become businesses or impact ventures further down the road. As such, Palmer focused on the ideation and the grounding of businesses in addressing pertinent issues. Emphasizing the importance of crafting human-centered solutions, he had students go out and conduct the research necessary to execute their ideas. Palmer wanted students to learn effective teamwork, improve presentation skills and have fun.

Student response to the competition has been positive. “I had an incredible time working with my team, [Palmer] and alumni mentors,” Dodson, a member of the MediForm team, said. “It was hard work, and at times we hit roadblocks, but I think through mentorship and really putting in the time, we were able to see the value of grounding our designs in what people need. I think we learned to be interested rather than interesting.”

This competition was a flagship event for the nascent entrepreneurial programming initiative at the College. Past entrepreneurial events have included a Career Trek to visit Boston start-ups and workshops with alumni entrepreneurs. Entrepreneurship at the College has always existed, but now there is a community and a leader in Palmer to help support the effort and allow it to grow even more.

Entrepreneurship is difficult, but there is no greater satisfaction than in creating something that is entirely your own or solving issues about which you are passionate. Entrepreneurship at the College is open to all majors and interests. Students who value creative thinking, want to find a team, would like to connect with alumni or are just genuinely curious about entrepreneurship are encouraged to contact Palmer. The world needs more problem solvers, and the College is a great place to get started.

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