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90 Seconds to Success

By Jessie Fredlund ’07

Picture this:

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, the 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, spoke to students about preparing the pitch. Jaye-Kaplan included 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, 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 leadership goals.

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.


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