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WEB EXCLUSIVE: SwatTank Debuts with a Flourish

By Elizabeth Vogdes


Moderator Shalom Saar ’74 with Jalisa Roberts ’13, the inaugural winner of the SwatTank business-plan competition, on March 23. Photo by Laurence Kesterson

SwatTank, the College’s first business-plan competition, culminated in a lively finish at the 14th annual Jonathan R. Lax ’71 Conference for Entrepreneurship, Saturday, March 23 in the Science Center. Three teams of finalists were shepherded through the fast-paced judging process.

Coordinated by the Career Services Office, SwatTank began in the fall with 11 teams of students cultivating business ideas, mentored by entrepreneurial alumni and a team of student advisers. Competitors also participated in alumni-led webinars that explored the basic elements of business-plan development. The original teams were narrowed down to the three finalists who took the stage at the Lax Conference. Jalisa Roberts ’13 emerged victorious.

Each team made an initial pitch followed by two 10-minute question-and-answer periods, first with a panel of judges, then with the audience. Roberts went first, strolling gracefully as she delivered a four-minute presentation of her project, The Cocoon, a dance-based nonprofit youth-empowerment program designed to help rebuild the hurricane-ravaged community of East New Orleans.

Her pitch, like the two that followed, ended with a hug from moderator Shalom Saar ’74, an MIT senior lecturer who also teaches a leadership skills seminar at Swarthmore. His course represents, in addition to SwatTank, the second initiative overseen by the College’s new Center for Innovation and Leadership.

Roberts was followed by Chelsea Hicks ’14, Kyle Pierce ’14, and Ian Anderson ’13, whose presentation of their online company Pierce + Axel, a fashionable, affordable men’s shoe line, was accented by their own zippy, colorful footwear.

The third finalist was Chris Fortunato ’14, whose innovation was RiseDesk, a portable sitting/standing computer desk converter. Fortunato unveiled a rough prototype as a student demonstrated the ease of the product’s use. His prototype sparked later audience discussion of the power of a visual prop in selling one’s business idea.

The interactive, highly collaborative nature of the SwatTank competition was evident throughout the day. During the kickoff poster session, students held lively discussions with a stream of interested attendees, during which Roberts marveled at “so many ideas and questions I hadn’t heard before.” SwatTank organizing-team member Aldo Frosinini ’15 said he was “ecstatic” to observe how many entrepreneurial alums were lining up to talk to students.

Judges for the event were Lax Conference keynote speaker Terrence Hicks ’73, vice president of Benjamin Franklin Technology Partners of Southeastern Pennsylvania; Iqbal Quadir ’81, MIT Professor of the Practice of Development and Entrepreneurship; Joseph Turner ’73, pharmaceutical industry consultant; and Karen Meidlinger, principal of Meidlinger Partners. While the judges’ questions centered on the practical viability of individual business ideas, audience members offered specific recommendations to the teams, such as asking for more seed money at the start of their projects.

Saar kept the audience engaged in the tense minutes leading up to the announcement of the winner. He asked the teams to make short statements on what they had learned from this experience and invited more audience input.

Dean of Students Liz Braun had her self-described “Oscar moment” when she opened the envelope and announced that Roberts’ dance project was the winner of the $500 prize. Turner noted that the judges were impressed with all three teams but felt that the cash award would most immediately benefit Roberts’ business plan. All of the judges hoped that Roberts would consider adapting her business plan to a for-profit model, which could be more sustainable, Turner added.

Reflecting on the day, SwatTank organizer Rosinini felt that the first competition “came together even better than I could have hoped,” fulfilling its educational goals and building student-alumni connections.

Dean Braun, impressed by the hard work of all involved, declared that one lesson she took away from the competition was that the Center for Innovation and Leadership is “a startup in its own right” and would benefit from a business plan.

Moderator Saar declared the Career Services office to be “the unsung hero” of the competition. Other sponsors included the Dean’s Office, the President’s Office, and the Entrepreneurship Club.

Of SwatTank’s finalists, Saar proclaimed, “You are all winners.”

See the link below for video from the SwatTank competition.

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