Draper Competition Puts Out Call to Student Entrepreneurs

A table tent outlines the schedule for Shark Tank 2, with a Mediterranean theme to match the food.


Jasmine Setoodehnia ’14 and Laura Lubben ’16 present their business idea, “Mother Nurture.”

This year a wider field of aspiring entrepreneurs will have the opportunity to develop and pitch sustainable business models in an attempt to win a portion of $25,000 in cash, scholarships and other prizes. The annual Draper Business Plan Competition has invited students at Barnard, Bay Path and Mount Holyoke colleges to join Smith students in the challenge.

With the expanded competition, nearly 50 students from the four women’s colleges are participating in the contest, which requires individuals or teams to submit executive summaries and full business proposals and defend their plans before panels of distinguished alumnae, venture capitalists and entrepreneurs in two “shark tank” events. The finalists will then pitch their ideas in a “trade show” on April 16 to compete for a grand prize of $10,000 and up to three scholarships to the Draper University of Heroes in San Mateo, Calif.

“In 90 seconds you have to persuade a venture capitalist to give you money for your business,” says Mahnaz Mahdavi, professor of economics at Smith and faculty director of the Center for Women and Financial Independence (WFI). “That means you have to be very coherent in explaining what it is and why you are doing it better than anybody else.”

Organized by the WFI, the competition is funded by Melissa Draper ’77 and her husband, venture capitalist and entrepreneur Tim Draper. Now in its second year, the contest has attracted about twice as many entrants as it did last year.

“Our goal is to make this competition a mecca for woman entrepreneurs,” Mahdavi says. “We want this to be a place where woman entrepreneurs can come together every year to share ideas and compete.”

Ravya Taghavi ’93, who worked with Mahdavi in the early days of the WFI and is now a consultant assisting with the Draper competition, sees big benefits for students who enter, whether or not they are personally inclined toward business.

“There is a huge amount of self-confidence gained simply by having to come up with a plan and present it to a group of strangers,” Taghavi says. “Even if a student goes through this program and never opens a business, she will have gained immeasurable life skills.”

Competitors are coached on generating ideas, on assessing and field-testing them, and on presenting their ideas in writing and in person. For the “shark tank” portion of the competition, Smith faculty members and local entrepreneurs are invited to attend an informal reception to mingle and talk with competing students. Over the course of the evening, each individual or team gives a 90-second memorized “elevator pitch.” After the pitches, the entrepreneurs offer feedback .

On Wednesday, April 16, 15 student entrepreneurs will participate in the Draper Business Trade Show, starting at 3 p.m. in the Campus Center upper level. The top three prizes will be awarded by the judges—including Tim and Melissa Draper—based on combined scores that include teams’ written materials, trade-show booths and 90-second pitches. Members of the Smith community and the public are welcome to attend and to hear the pitches at 5 p.m. A reception will follow at 7 p.m.

“The Draper competition really brings up the spirit of risk taking—taking risk and managing risk,” Mahdavi says. “By doing this, students learn: sometimes it’s a good idea to take a measured risk.”