May 10, 2011

By Adam Gerchick ’13

A reusable popcorn bag. A leadership program. A smart-phone calculator application. Sweet potatoes on the go. These were four of the 15 student entries in the inaugural Amherst Innovation Pitch competition on April 29 in Stirn Auditorium.

Four months in the making, the Pitch invited students to propose inventions or ideas for business, entertainment or nonprofit entrepreneurship to a panel of three judges who have experience in those fields. The first-, second- and third-place winners would receive mentorship from alumni entrepreneurs and prizes of $500, $350 and $250, respectively.

Risalat Khan '13 presents his proposal, "Creating the
Nation Builders of Tomorrow," at the Amherst Innovation
Pitch competition.

Competing students and teams had two minutes to make their pitches and three minutes to answer questions from judges, who evaluated the entries on their potential for growth in value or influence, novelty and feasibility.

Limited only by the requirements that their ideas fit at least one of the contest’s three categories and that any business and nonprofit proposals had not received more than $30,000 in prior funding, students were given virtually free reign to propose their products and ideas.

Thirty-seven individuals and groups submitted entries, of which the contest’s student and alumni organizers selected 11 finalists and four wild-card winners to present in Stirn.

In addition to the competitors, judges and organizers, many students attended the presentations both to support the budding entrepreneurs and vote for their friends’ ideas in the Audience Choice Award, which included a $200 prize.

The Pitch was the brainchild of Jacob Ong ’14. A senator on the Association of Amherst Students, the college’s student government group, Ong regards Amherst students as particularly qualified for entrepreneurship. “Because of our broad-based education, we draw lessons from different disciplines, so we are more equipped to spot areas where we can improve things, where we can innovate.”

After the AAS, which had never funded prizes, initially rejected his funding request—he felt that cash prizes were a must to motivate students to enter—Ong contacted the college’s Center for Community Engagement, which agreed to co-partner with the AAS to sponsor the competition.

At the suggestion of the CCE, Ong contacted supportive entrepreneur and alum Stephen D. Garrow ’84, founder and CEO of business-development firm Rushmore Associates. Garrow, who judges the Business Plan Competition at New York University, agreed to do the same at the Pitch—and to contribute $500 for prize money through his firm and recruit other judges.

This past Interterm, Garrow helped teach an entrepreneurship course at Amherst through the CCE. “We expected 15 to 20 students,” he says. “We ended up with about 60, which gave us an indication that the campus was looking for this type of an outlet.”

The CCE and AAS hope to make the pitch, or a more comprehensive business-plan contest, an annual event. Ong and other students are “trying to build an Amherst tradition of enterprise and innovation,” Ong says.

Amherst Innovation Pitch organizer Stephen D.
Garrow '84 presents sisters Laken (left) and Carlissa
King (right), both of the Class of 2011 with a
ceremonial grand-prize check after the Kings won
the competition's grand prize for their entry "Elle &
Cee," a proposal for a line of affordable dolls
representing various ethnic and cultural backgrounds.

(Before the Pitch, there was a panel discussion featuring several alumni entrepreneurs on April 15. Hosted by Amherst’s Wades Fellowship and the Office of Alumni and Parent Programing, the event attracted several dozen students.)

Judging the pitch were John Fabel, founder of wooden-bicycle company Sylvan Cycles and member of the Marlboro College Graduate School M.B.A. faculty; Eric Glustrom ’07, founder and executive director of Ugandan leadership-training organization Educate!; and Siiri Morley of Prosperity Candle, which promotes female entrepreneurs in developing countries by selling their handmade candles. Garrow was master of ceremonies.

The contestants offered a diverse array of ideas. Sara Gehrdes ’11 proposed the “Shake it Up,” a washable, re-sealable popcorn bag that she described as both an environmentally responsible way to reduce waste and a potentially fashionable accessory for frequent moviegoers, with a selection of various designs to fit each owner’s tastes.

In contrast to Gehrdes’ simple and commercial concept, Risalat Khan ’13 proposed a program to train promising yet underprivileged Bangladeshi youth for roles as future governmental and societal leaders. Calling the program “Creating the Nation Builders of Tomorrow,” Khan told the judges he had spent years conceiving it and said a prize would help fund its start-up costs, which he estimated at $10,000.

Following the presentations, the judges retired to determine the winners. Ten minutes later, they returned with decisions – and oversized, press-conference-style “checks” – in hand.

Third prize: “In Limbo,” a multimedia project by Stella Honey Yoon ’14 that would combine photography and film footage to depict the struggles of multiethnic and multicultural individuals, like her, to establish their own identities. Khan claimed second prize, with the judges praising his clear and sincere passion. The top prize went to twins Carlissa and Laken King, both of the Class of 2011, for their proposal “Elle & Cee,” an affordable collection of girl dolls reflecting a diverse array of ethnicities and cultural backgrounds.“This idea has always been at the forefront of our minds,” said Carlissa King. "The idea’s so big that we have no idea where to start, and now we’re glad to have some direction.”

Each winning entry had a social-entrepreneurship angle. As Glustrom explained, in selecting winners, he and other judges “were trying to think about which [entries] would really benefit the most from, one, the money, and, two, the mentorship, and some of the social ones really lent themselves to benefiting a lot more from them.”

Garrow called the Pitch successful and promising, saying that entrepreneurial development integrates well with the college’s curriculum: “An entrepreneur is ultimately an integrator, taking various ideas and figuring out a way to pull those together. It’s not unlike the way [students] are doing coursework here. So we’re tapped into something here.”