Seconds to Success
By Jessie Fredlund ’07
You’re just getting started in your career. You dream of owning
your own business but for now you’re working in a low-level job
for someone else. On your way back to the office from a coffee
run, you meet a potential investor on the elevator who has lots of money
and an open mind. You decide to grab the opportunity to tell her about
your business idea and get her excited enough to invest in you.
You have 90 seconds. Go.
That’s the hypothetical challenge faced by participants in this
year’s Elevator Pitch Contest, an annual event coordinated by the
Women and Financial Independence (WFI) program that gives
students exactly 90 seconds to sell their business idea to a panel of
judges. The winner of the contest will receive a cash prize as well as
a chance to move on to a regional competition held in April by the Harold
Grinspoon Charitable Foundation, with more money at stake.
Now in its fourth year, WFI’s
Elevator Pitch Contest has expanded to include a workshop series in
the weeks leading up to the March 6 competition.
Last week, through
WFI’s lunchtime workshops, students
learned about “Conceiving the Idea” from James Theroux, of
the Isenberg School of Management at UMass, Amherst. This
week, Susan Jaye-Kaplan, of GoFit, Inc., a Springfield organization
that provides health and fitness opportunities to economically
underprivileged youth and women, will speak to students about
preparing the pitch. Jaye-Kaplan, who will speak on Tuesday,
Feb. 20, at noon in Neilson Browsing Room, will include her
story about a very successful pitch she once gave to the
sports apparel company Reebok International.
Finally, on March 6, contest participants will pitch their ideas to
judges and audience members in 90 seconds or less, also at noon in the
Neilson Browsing Room. The event is open to the Smith community. The
winner of the contest will receive $100 and the chance to move on to
a regional competition on April 25, where students from 13 area schools
will compete for a $1,000 prize.
Elevator Pitch contestants will be judged on the feasibility of their
ideas and on the convincingness of their pitch, said Susannah Howe, visiting
assistant professor of engineering, who helps coordinate the event and
will serve as a contest judge.
“[Winning competitors] engage the audience, they connect with
them right away, they are able to tell you clearly and concisely what
their idea is and they give you confidence that they’ll be able
to carry it out,” she says. What is most important in pitching
a business idea is “passion and enthusiasm,” said Howe.
Competitors are not allowed to use note cards and may not present a
business they have already started. However, they will have complete
freedom to make up technologies and funding sources that do not exist,
as long as their ideas are plausible and well informed.
Last year’s Elevator Pitch Contest winner, Annie Parker AC’08,
pitched her idea for a development company that would make
environmentally friendly housing more affordable and more easily available.
While her idea was hypothetical, it is based on ideas that Parker plans
to implement upon graduation from Smith. According to Parker, participation
in the contest gave her important practice in presenting her ideas to
an audience. This year, Parker will serve as one of the contest judges.
The Elevator Pitch Contest
is sponsored by Smith and the Harold Grinspoon Charitable Foundation,
a nonprofit philanthropic organization based in West Springfield that
aims to encourage entrepreneurship among young people, promote literacy,
and support young people’s academic and
The Grinspoon Foundation also funds the Entrepreneurial Spirit Awards,
which provides grant funding to support student businesses. In the past
three years, Smith students from a variety of majors have won 16 separate
Entrepreneurial Spirit Awards totaling $15,000.
In 2005, a Smith student took second place in the regional Grinspoon
Foundation pitch contest. This spring, Howe and Parker have high hopes
that Smith can bring home first prize.