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Tomtoberfest’s Founders Fair Offers Budding Entrepreneurs Insight, Inspiration, and a Chance to Pitch Their Big Idea

Lauren Purnell (A&S ’03), Colin Hunter (A&S ’04), Ashoka
Rajendra (A&S ’13), and Spencer Ingram (Engineering ’10)
judge the Entrepreneurship Group’s Elevator Pitch Competition,
one of three "Pitch" events taking place during Founders Fair.

What does it take to successfully pitch a business idea to potential investors? How do you get started as an entrepreneur? And what does a really good pitch sound like, anyway? These were just a few of the not-so-simple questions brilliantly answered by a superb group of speakers, panelists, and students during a series of three “Pitch” events, held Sept. 28, 2013, at the University of Virginia’s Garrett Hall.

“Pitch” was a key feature of the afternoon’s Founders Fair, a free, interactive showcase of some of the most innovative groups and ventures from throughout the Charlottesville and University communities, including forward-thinking McIntire-based student groups Enactus, the Entrepreneurship Group at U.Va., Students for Economic Development (SEED), and the Virginia Venture Fund. The Founders Fair, in turn, represented the on-Grounds portion of “Tomtoberfest,” an annual three-day celebration of creativity and innovation throughout the Charlottesville area. Founders Fair events, including “Pitch,” were sponsored by the McIntire School of Commerce’s Galant Center for Entrepreneurship, as well as by a select group of University departments and organizations and innovative local businesses.

“We were really pleased that so many people came out to watch and participate in ‘Pitch,’” said Uzair Minhas (McIntire ’14), president of the Entrepreneurship Group at U.Va., which played a key role in organizing the occasion. “One of our goals in spearheading this trio of events was to provide students with some very real exposure to the entrepreneurial ecosystem, much of which is based on your ability to ‘sell’ your idea to stakeholders—whether that means investors, customers, or friends and family.”

Casting a Spell
Leading off the “Pitch” events was an enchanting hour-long seminar titled “Pitchcraft: How to Captivate a Crowd.” Hosted by McIntire Professor of Management Communication Marcia Lynne Pentz, the event featured dynamic presentations and performances by actress Melissa Charles (A&S ’98), poet Bernard Hankins (Architecture ’04), entrepreneur Tommy Nicholas (A&S ‘11), and comedian Jim Zarling.

Nicholas spoke first, telling the audience that—having both delivered and witnessed some very bad pitches—he spoke from hard experience. “When I was starting out, I gave some pitches that were pretty embarrassing,” he said. “And I’ve seen some pitches that were so terrible that the investors left not knowing what the entrepreneur was doing, what the entrepreneur wanted, or what the entrepreneur had achieved in the past.”

Crafting a successful pitch, Nicholas explained, requires bearing in mind an essential truth: You’re starting from zero.

“Nobody cares about you or what you’re talking about,” he said. The trick, of course, is to make people care—by telling a pithy, colorful story so that people remember who you are and what you do; by making use of compelling graphics that communicate success and the potential for growth; and by using simple, well-crafted language in favor of opaque, syllable-laden business-speak. “What makes you sound smartest of all is being able to communicate really complicated ideas really succinctly, with words that virtually anyone can understand,” Nicholas said.

Words of Wisdom
Nicholas was followed by Hankins, who, after delivering a riveting hip-hop-style poem rich with puns, intricate rhyme schemes, and captivating wordplay, explained to the audience what he saw as the key element in successful message crafting, whether pitch or poetry: the presence of a true, resonant message. “You can do all the rhyming you want, but if there’s no truth in there, it can only go so far,” Hankins said. That is, without meaning, your message—no matter how cleverly scripted—will go flat: It’s the difference between Dr. Seuss’ playfully rhymey but ultimately meaningless Cat in the Hat and Wordsworth’s playfully rhymey but wonderfully meaningful “Daffodils.”

Young Entrepreneurs
“Pitchcraft” was followed by a rousing panel discussion of the state of entrepreneurship at UVA. Moderated by David Touve, Professor of Entrepreneurship at the McIntire School and Director of the School’s Galant Center for Entrepreneurship, the panel featured the thoughtful, heartfelt commentary of recent UVA alumni Colin Hunter (A&S ’04), Founder of high-end men’s apparel retailer Alton Lane; Spencer Ingram (Engineering ’10), Founder of local entrepreneurs’ clubhouse HackCville; Lauren Purnell (A&S ’03), Ph.D. candidate at the Darden School of Business; and Ashoka Rajendra (A&S ’13), Founder of corporate learning facilitator LearnShark.

Make Haste Slowly
Addressing such questions as how they became interested in pursuing an entrepreneurial path, how their time at UVA inspired their entrepreneurial aspirations, and how a parent might advise a rising graduate seeking to dive right into an entrepreneurial career, some common themes emerged: There’s no single path to entrepreneurial success; the process can’t be rushed; and entrepreneurial ambition and the business skill set that must accompany it are often honed over the course of years of seemingly unrelated work. Indeed, clothier Hunter (who’d planned to go to medical school, then signed on with powerhouse global consultancy Bain before starting his business four years ago) advocated taking interesting opportunities as they arose, and working hard to make the most of—and learn the most from—those opportunities. “You’ll continue to learn, whatever path you end up taking,” Hunter said. “It’s through those experiences that you’ll gain the knowledge you need.”

Getting Started
For those aspiring entrepreneurs eager to get a running start on their start-ups, the “Pitch” events’ culminating hour—the Entrepreneurship Group’s Elevator Pitch Competition—offered a fascinating glimpse into the real-world pressures of pitching for real money. A high-intensity contest in which a select group of 20 student entrants each had one minute to sell their business ideas to Hunter, Ingram, Purnell, and Rajendra, who responded with two minutes of hard questioning, the pitch competition offered a mesmerizing showcase of students’ creative and persuasive powers.

Proposing ideas ranging from a customized, super-easy tooth-flossing device to an online platform for connecting Chinese college applicants with American college consultants, the students seemed to have rapidly absorbed and integrated the lessons of “Pitchcraft” into their presentations. First-place honors, along with $250, went to Trey Garrett (A&S ’14) for “The Corner Coat Check,” a convenient, cost-effective storage system for local establishments to stow coats ahead of the changing seasons; second place, along with $50, went to Anish Simhal (Engineering ’14) for Kinect PT, a physical therapy application capable of providing real-time feedback to patients performing rehabilitation exercises; third place went to Elizabeth Kukla (Engineering ’16) for PhotoRun, a platform allowing spectators and local photographers to upload road-race photos by tagging the bib number of runners in the photos.

Event organizer Minhas says he was delighted with the content and quality of the pitches, as well as by the evident enthusiasm of the panelists and crowd. “I feel we achieved our organization's goals of making the Elevator Pitch Competition a forum for high-quality feedback for the student contestants—and a high-stakes, thrilling event for the audience,” he said.

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