Students to Present Business Plan Ideas at Lax Conference for Entrepreneurship

by Elizabeth Vogdes
Swat Tank Finalists Christopher Fortunato '14, Ian Anderson '13, Kyle Pierce '14, Chelsea Hicks '14, and Jalisa Roberts '13.
From left, SwatTank finalists Christopher Fortunato '14, Ian Anderson '13, Kyle Pierce '14, Chelsea Hicks '14, and Jalisa Roberts '13.

SwatTank, the College's first business plan competition, has produced three finalists whose ideas reflect the wide-ranging diversity of Swarthmore itself. The projects include a nonprofit dance-based youth empowerment program by Jalisa Roberts '13; a compact standing/sitting computer desk converter by Christopher Fortunato '14; and an affordable, web-based men's fashionable shoe line by Kyle Pierce '14, Chelsea Hicks '14, and Ian Anderson '13. All will present their ideas as part of this weekend's Lax Conference for Entrepreneurship. This year's annual conference will also feature a keynote address by Terry Hicks '73, vice president of the investment group for Ben Franklin Technology Partners.

Erin Massey, associate director of Career Services, says the SwatTank competition developed as a result of "a perfect storm" of ideas from multiple sources, including entrepreneurial alumni, the Entrepreneurship Club, Career Services, the Lax Conference, and the Center for Innovation and Leadership, which is co-sponsoring it as one of several pilot projects this year.

"Swarthmore has a long history of attracting students that have a unique perspective on common problems," says Dean Liz Braun. "We want the Center to be a place that helps to nurture that ability to think differently, to work collaboratively, and to ultimately use their ideas to make a positive difference in the world."

Of SwatTank, Massey adds it is "really the students who needed to be the backbone of it, to motivate their peers in order to make it happen." She describes the experience as being "a learning process for all of us involved, trying to figure out how it's going to work and how we're going to make it represent Swarthmore."

The SwatTank organizing team researched other college-level business competitions and determined that Swarthmore's contest should be open to all, with a focus on its educational value. The team also decided that each competing group should be mentored by at least one experienced business person, along with several student advisers. "We're thoroughly excited about the support we got from Swarthmore alumni," says Antony Kaguara, '15, a founding team member.

Eleven groups responded to the initial call for proposals last November. This was followed by four alumni-led webinars focused on the subjects of idea generation, business plan writing, financing, and pitching.  Among the business concepts that were floated were an app for shift work scheduling; a combination laundromat/café; and a pre-college summer camp in China.  At the end of February, six teams presented their ideas to a group of College staff and student judges who asked questions and assigned points to each group's business plans, posters and pitches.

Massey states that both the quality and quantity of work represented by all six entries were "impressive." Their posters were displayed in Parrish Hall for community feedback, and they will all be showcased again at the Lax Conference for Entrepreneurship on March 23. The final judging for the $500 prize will occur at the conference when the three finalists pitch their business plans. Judges will include private equity firm principal and SwatTank competition advisor Karen Meidlinger, pharmaceutical and biotech industry consultant Joseph Turner '73, and keynote speaker Terrence Hicks '73, vice president of an investment group that provides early-stage funding to many Philadelphia-area tech companies. Business leadership consultant and MIT lecturer Shalom Saar '74 will serve as moderator.

The students agree that assuming serious responsibility was an important SwatTank lesson, which competitor Kyle Pierce describes as "thinking about this business in a grown-up sort of way." The student organizers of the competition maintain that their particular experience has been analogous to nurturing a startup, underscoring the importance of regular communication, long-term planning and hard deadlines.

"We want to take all this brainpower here and turn it to good, whether it be in the for-profit or non-profit world," says Aldo Frosinini '15, co-president of the Entrepreneurship Club. "That's been the goal of Swarthmore from the beginning, so we just think we're advancing the mission of the College in a different way."