I was very lucky to act as co-facilitator (with Charles Merritt) for the Reverse Pitch-a-Thon, on Wednesday, sponsored by Julie Macmillan and the UNC Gillings School of Public Health, with a panel of peers—speaking about the campus “Food for All” initiative—who were so blindingly brilliant that I felt like a know-nothing.
And I was a judge at the Carolina Challenge Pitch Party Thursday.
I’m not easy to impress, but I was blown away by the commitment and passion and unbridled genius I saw. These things didn’t take over the community last week; the genius had already been here, and UNC’s GEW (Global Entrepreneurship Week) provided the perfect crucible for that genius to emerge and converge across a whole series of events.
The largest of these events was the Carolina Challenge Pitch Party. A record year, the 2015 Pitch Party hosted 100 distinct student teams, about as many judges, and countless other campus and community members, all assembled in the Kenan Stadium Blue Zone for an incredibly kinetic and inspirational evening.
Even being at the event, the scope of what went on was hard to capture, so I’m including here
- some context.
- a focus on two ventures in particular.
And I’ve added to the string of lessons I took from the evening with a “Top Pitch Party Tips and Tactics” article here.
Don’t read on simply because I coached the team that took first place, Virtual Kinetics (pictured above). Read on because I’ve looped in some fantastic people and crowd-sourced this article to come up with some excellent advice.
First, some context: UNC is overwhelmingly gifted with a vast and growing startup ecosystem (ranked as one of the top two university partners and among the top three community partners in the US), from innovation and entrepreneurial-minded programs across campus (some with discipline-specific incubators and accelerators), to near-campus partnerships like the 1789 Venture Lab and Launch Chapel Hill accelerator.
And here I have to pause to brag: Mathilde Verdier directs UNC’s Social Innovation Initiative and coordinates all local Global Entrepreneurship Week efforts, and she works very closely with Judith Cone, special assistant to the chancellor for innovation & entrepreneurship and interim vice-chancellor of commercialization and economic development. Judith, while vice president of emerging strategies and entrepreneurship at the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation, helped create GEW in 2007-2008.
Since then, Global Entrepreneurship Week has become “the world’s largest celebration of the innovators and job creators who launch startups that bring ideas to life, drive economic growth, and expand human welfare,” Says Mathilde: “What Judith helped start now involves over 10 million people and 160 countries, and empowers 25 million people through more than 25,000 activities and events. Talk about the impact one person can have!”
The Carolina Challenge has been leading the way for almost 12 years and continues to do so this year (thanks the UNC Center for Entrepreneurial Studies (CES) and the students leadership team).
The Carolina Challenge began “to encourage UNC students to be innovators,” say CES associate director Kris Hergert, recognizing that “the students know that they have an opportunity to leave a legacy, to really make an impact. . . and the beauty of the Carolina Challenge is that we engage the entire campus and see a coming together of the best and brightest minds.”
I know some amazingly cool people, and I met even more at the Pitch Party, scores of them.
Let’s look at two teams Abra and Carolina Conscious, two teams that not only have impressive ventures, but who were gracious enough to talk with me about their pitches and pitch-processes. I’ll go into a bit of depth here, and you’ll also find both teams featured in the “Top Pitch Party Tips and Tactics” article.
These two teams also represent various points on the startup spectrum—together they offer amazing insights.
Abra (founding team Dalton Askew and Daniel Mora, both senior economics majors and Greg Geshmann, a senior business major), where convenience meets security, secures and autofills usernames and passwords using fingerprint identification. This early-stage startup emerged as many do—Dalton recognized an inefficiency in current ID-verification processes and started thinking alternatives.
But the Abra team didn’t simply get caught up in the apps-are-everything craze. Abra merges software with hardware and looks to combine Bluetooth with NFC (near-field-communications) and Wi-Fi standards to maximize their effectiveness. The team also never lost sight of the primary goal to streamline the user experience.
Like any effective entrepreneur, Dalton didn’t let his idea rest with himself—he enrolled in Jim Kitchen’s entrepreneurship class and had to prove his idea, multiple times, in conjunction with his classmates. Everyone presented their own ideas and work-groups came together and coalesced into a team around one idea. Abra emerged as the best.
Dalton continued vetting the concepts. He asked around at several large financial-services companies to test the concept, then connected with some great advisors and coaches. He was entirely open to their advice and ultimately pivoted to Abra’s current path toward an MVP (minimum viable product).
“I just keep pushing and pushing, working on this idea every day,” Dalton says. “We got some tread, and then all this positive feedback kept rolling in. This problem impacts so many people; I thought we had a billion-dollar idea on our hands, things were getting surreal.”
But then he saw through the hype: “Our idea in the current state, a billion dollars? No way. But someday, yes. This keeps my drive up, and I keep working.”
Carolina Conscious (founding team Ben Director, a senior economics and math double-major, Asher Lipsitz, a senior public relations major, Patrick Lowery, a senior business major, Lisa Dunleavy and Deanna MacCormac, both junior business majors), which Asher categorizes as a “a non-profit initiative with an entrepreneurial, start-up mentality,” looks to tackle an immediate and grave concern head on. It aims to raise awareness about sexual-assault prevention efforts at UNC, and to help more people be “mindful and conscious of their actions when they go out on weekends.”
Carolina Conscious’ efforts have begun with the most decidedly low-tech instrument, compostable drinking cups.
“The drinking cups are a conduit to a larger campaign and social culture shift,” which Asher admits “is no easy task and a fairly lofty goal,” but he also hits exactly on what anyone who looks at entrepreneurship in the 21st century should see.
“Being a young, bootstrapped initiative makes us more responsive than larger and slow-moving organizations: we can listen to students and respond more quickly and effectively,” Asher says. “We’re forced to be creative and innovative with our resources because we can’t afford much of what a larger well-funded initiative might.”
Entrepreneurship isn’t just for other people and brand-new ideas. Entrepreneurial strategies have empowered, and will continue to empower, revisions, refinements and revolutions in our commerce, our communities and ourselves.
“We’re firing on all cylinders,” Hergert notes, “Our best is yet to come.”
And, even with all this info, I’ve only touched on a few of the great learnings that came out of the Carolina Challenge Pitch Party. Check out “Top Pitch Party Tips & Tactics” for more.