The Center for Innovation and Leadership (CIL) celebrated the 10th anniversary of SwatTank, Swarthmore’s premier innovation competition, with a virtual alumni panel discussion this March. A group of past SwatTank participants and winners reflected on the program’s impact on their lives, with Omri Gal '20, Brooklyn-based founder and executive director of Design FC, moderating the discussion.
For the last 10 years, SwatTank has offered students the opportunity to “take a rough idea, product, or concept and develop it toward its next incarnation, ideation, or realization,” through workshops, coaching with CIL staff, and alumni mentorship.
“This is an ideation competition where students find a problem, a pain they see in the world, and they solve it,” said Katie Clark, assistant dean of integrated learning and leadership and director of the CIL. “[Students] research and interrogate assumptions about customer segments and their competitors, discover what resources they might need, learn about cost and revenue streams, and talk to experts in industries that they’re trying to break into.”
After applying, the top three teams are invited to continue developing their ideas and ultimately pitch their final project live to a panel of judges and an audience for cash prizes.
The competition, which debuted in 2013, grew out of the College’s Jonathan R. Lax Conference on Entrepreneurship. Among the many outstanding projects created by SwatTank participants over the years are an online learning platform to connect Mongolian high school students with the college admissions process, an app to better connect performers to music venues, and business casual clothing wear with interchangeable collars.
Then and now, innovation abounds.
“Over 300 student competitors, 100 alumni mentors and judges, and thousands of audience members have been touched by this across campus — with our partners in faculty, staff, media services, and the MakerSpace,” said Jennifer Barrington, associate director of career development, who made opening remarks with Clark at the March event.
The five alumni panelists covered a range of interests and backgrounds, from technology to dance.
Sedinam Worlanyo ’17, who studied computer science and economics at Swarthmore, is now a UX researcher at Coursera, an educational technology company that works with universities and other organizations to offer online courses, certifications, and degrees.
“Being able to do SwatTank gave me the confidence that our team could come up with an idea, pitch that idea to people, and be able to galvanize support in some way,” explained Worlanyo, who won the event in 2016. “I think that similar mindset, even within the company, has helped me, whether it's [to] question or pitch other ideas when I see a gap.”
Michael Piazza ‘17, who studied computer science, has worked for the last three years at Audius, a Web3 music startup. Piazza has been interested in working on apps like Audius since days with SwatTank, for which he and a classmate finished first in 2017.
“My SwatTank project was another app, called Switchboard,” said Piazza. “Basically, the idea was to pair students in anonymous, one-on-one conversations on a college campus and have a platform for venting, searching for academic support, [and] mentorship.”
About halfway through the discussion, several panelists noted the importance of tacit knowledge — intuitive knowledge rooted in experiences — over the facts, procedures, and data that make up explicit knowledge.
The professional experience of Michelle Ma ’20, who majored in philosophy and computer science, includes working at Yahoo as an associate product manager.
“A lot of what we heard there [is about] tacit knowledge, and learning by doing,” said Ma, a finalist in the 2017 competition. “My first experience of really going through that was definitely through SwatTank, and getting more involved with Katie [Clark] and the CIL team.”
Kyle Pierce ’14 studied economics and Chinese at Swarthmore, and is now co-founder and COO of Options MD, a health tech solution that provides personalized care to people struggling with severe and treatment-resistant mental illnesses. Pierce says his SwatTank project, a men’s shoe product, had “a very similar focus” to his current startup in its aim to make high-quality items available to a larger audience.
“What SwatTank helped me understand was [to] be strong in what you do know, and don't be afraid to get help and mentorship for what you don't,” said Pierce, who will serve as one of the judges of this year's SwatTank. “Ultimately, you have to stand in your own vision, because not everyone is a visionary like you are.”
Jalisa Roberts ’13, a double major in dance and Black studies, was the first-ever winner of SwatTank in 2013. Her pitch was for a program called The Cocoon that would empower youth through dance.
“The goal was specifically to use dance to rebuild community in my [hometown] of New Orleans East, by raising students and dancers,” said Roberts. “They would be learning dance technique, the tools of dance composition, and leadership, to use those skills and resources to do whatever it is that they wanted to do in the future.”
After winning SwatTank, and with continued support from alumni and the Lang Center for Civic and Social Responsibility, Roberts received enough funding to go back home and start the pilot program.
“All the fundraising, grant writing, and business plan skills I learned at Swarthmore have directly influenced my planning of The Cocoon and what the program has become,” said Roberts. “Part of innovating is rethinking our relationships to jobs in the establishment, and what it means to sustain ourselves and our communities, too, which I don't think I would have been thinking of in this way, if I hadn't gone through SwatTank and won.”
Gal closed the discussion by thanking the CIL for its hard work on SwatTank over the last decade.
“The ways in which we're thinking, the work that we're doing, [and] the questions that we're asking probably would not have happened if it wasn't for all of your work, your time, and your care,” Gal said. “So I wanted to say deep thank you for all that you've done for us and continue to do for the Swarthmore community — huge congratulations on reaching 10 years of SwatTank!”
The SwatTank 2022 Finals will be held Thursday, April 14 at 4:30 p.m. in Chang Hou Hall (Science Center 101). The event will feature three finalist teams and the largest-ever first-place cash prize of $5,000. A video of the event will later be posted on the College’s YouTube page.