Classrooms humming with energy, new business ideas, creativity—and that special brand of passion that only a prospective entrepreneur can bring to a burgeoning venture.
That was the scene this spring in the Haworth College of Business as the college hosted PITCH: A WMU Business Pitch Competition, a University-wide event, organized by the Department of Management and sponsored by Educational Community Credit Union, where students from any discipline could test their ideas, presentation skills and their effectiveness in making a case for funding their businesses.
The competition drew 32 teams, the maximum capacity for the event for this first year, and students were judged in progressive rounds by faculty, administrators and business community members, including many local business owners.
The field was narrowed to eight finalists for the final round of competition where Nate Norman, a sales and business marketing major from Portage, Mich., captured the top prize of $1,200 with his business idea for Fish Ninja Labs, a business providing aquarium solutions for the everyday aquarium enthusiast through automated monitoring and maintenance.
Second place and a prize of $700 went to Erik Chmelar, an MBA student from Midland, Mich., who presented TPimPAWster, a spinning cylindrical cat toy that keeps cats occupied and out of mischief. Chmelar also captured the $200 prize for most entertaining pitch, which was awarded by audience votes.
Third place and a prize of $400 went to a team of graduate students comprised of John Fry, a graduate student in educational leadership from Boyne City, Mich.; Ashley Agler, a graduate student in earth science from Watervliet, Mich.; Pawel Majkowski, an MBA student from Ann Arbor, Mich.; and Ryan McNally, an MBA student from Portage, Mich., for Tech Guardian, an app that disables a teen driver’s ability to text or make non-emergency calls while driving.
Encouraged to use the prize money as an investment in their businesses, the students are doing just that and are looking for opportunities to refine their ideas and gain more feedback and investors. All three winning teams have competed or plan to compete in Start Garden, a funding initiative for startups, based in Grand Rapids.
The growing emphasis on entrepreneurship in the Haworth College of Business is a vital part of the business curriculum. “There is an entrepreneurial fire that the students at WMU have,” says Dr. Robert Landeros, chair of the Department of Management and acting director of the Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation. “Our students are creative, innovative and strategic. With more than 40 percent of Haworth College of Business students expressing a plan to own a business during their careers, the Department of Management has expanded its course offerings in entrepreneurship. Dr. John Mueller and Dr. Laurel Ofstein joined the faculty in 2012 to further entrepreneurship education, spearheading new courses and initiatives. Dr. Mueller’s work on PITCH is a great example of building further opportunities for our students to pursue their entrepreneurial ideas.”
Reflections on the competition
- “It was an honor to win first prize at PITCH. It was a great eye opener to the incredible network and support system within southwest Michigan for entrepreneurs. The panel of judges that WMU assembled was outstanding, and I was honored to network with all of them. Dr. Mueller did a great job organizing the event. I would expect to see it grow even larger in the future.” – Nate Norman, sales and business marketing major, first place winner
- “ECCU is pleased to have been a part of PITCH by sponsoring the event. As a judge, I was impressed with both the quality of the presentations and the enthusiasm that the students had for their unique business ideas. I was rooting for them all.” – Christine Camp, vice president for marketing, ECCU, and competition judge
- "The energy the Pitch Competition created for entrepreneurship was palpable, and that entrepreneurial energy has continued beyond the competition. It is obvious that many students are not just thinking about being entrepreneurs but are already traveling the entrepreneurial path—it was very exciting to see." – Dr. Kay Palan, dean, Haworth College of Business
- “To have judges from across campus during the first round was something special. It showed the campus-wide support for the competition and entrepreneurial activity at Western. Then, to have judges on the second day come from the local business community shows the support in southwest Michigan. We look forward to getting more students around WMU excited about and involved with the event going forward.” – Dr. John Mueller, assistant professor of management and faculty organizer of PITCH
- “The pitch competition was well-organized and effective at bringing together the WMU entrepreneurial community. What I enjoyed most about PITCH was talking to other students about their business ideas, interests and goals.” – Erik Chmelar, MBA student, second place and most entertaining pitch winner
- "The WMU PITCH competition gave our team the validation and motivation to pursue our ideas. We are currently applying to Start Garden in Grand Rapids and constantly scouting out investment opportunities across the United States. It was an honor to present our idea before our peers and an excellent panel of judges.” – Pawel Majkowski, MBA student, third place winner
- “The pitch competition was a great venue in which some of the best WMU students could present
their innovative new product ideas. As a judge, it became apparent very quickly that having a good idea was not enough; a successful entrepreneur needs to be able to sell the idea in order for it to be a success. The fact that the winner was a sales and business marketing major seems to validate this insight.” – Dr. Steve Newell, professor of marketing, faculty judge
- “PITCH was a wonderful opportunity for WMU students to show off their creative problem solving skills along with understanding the future financial needs of the project. I was expecting great presentations, but was blown away at the level at which these students prepared and performed. John Mueller has clearly found an event to build on into the future.” – Ryan Jankovic, vice president of strategic development, Tekna
- “The WMU Pitch competition was great! It allowed us to gain invaluable feedback from the judges on our idea. The competition helped us to fully round out our business plan as we move forward and approach venture capitalists. If anyone has a business idea, I would highly recommend participating in the event.” – John Fry, graduate student, educational leadership, third place winner
- “The pitch competition gave our team the ability to prepare for future endeavors. Working together gave us a competitive edge to place as second runner up. We plan to use our prize funding to continue to grow our budding tech company. Our group has a strong desire to become a Kalamazoo-staple company one day by continuing to run with our ideas until we find the right venture capitalist/angel investor to back up these goals. Kalamazoo is our home; we want to make it our world headquarters someday.” Ashley Agler, graduate student in earth science, third place winner
- “I am so proud of our students who participated in the PITCH competition. Many of them had never had to pitch an idea to a potential investor before, so it forced them to think about how to succinctly represent the ideas they are passionate about in a way others could quickly understand. It was great to see so many faculty judges from across the University participating in the event. I think it shows the level of interest in entrepreneurship not only within the business college but across campus. We hope to continue to build on this interest with additional collaborations in the years to come.” – Dr. Laurel Ofstein, assistant professor of management, faculty judge
- "The PITCH event was a wonderful experience! It was inspiring to hear the students' ideas and to see them go through this process. This kind of experience is essential for the development of the students and their ideas. I look forward to many more PITCH events in the future." – Keith Hall, director, Keith Hall Summer Drum Intensive; adjunct jazz drum set instructor for WMU, faculty judge
Get a feel for WMU’s first business pitch competition by viewing the pitches of the finalists at wmich.edu/management/pitch.