A Sharkingly Good Idea
This article appeared in the Fall 2022 issue of the New England College Magazine.
Eli Leonard ’23 and David Novotny ’25, both Business Administration majors, have already launched successful businesses, and they haven’t even graduated yet. Leonard co-founded Leonard Media, a startup marketing company that has created over 100 social media campaigns in two years. Novotny, a self-described “determined entrepreneur” created Click Pawz, a business that creates pet apparel by pet owners for pet owners, with 20 percent of proceeds benefitting dog rescue organizations. How did these young entrepreneurs develop the skills to establish their businesses?
The reality television show Shark Tank debuted in 2009 with the premise of giving fledgling entrepreneurs the opportunity to pitch their business ideas to a group of potential investors. Nine years later, this concept made its way to New England College.
Erin Wilkinson Hartung, Associate Dean of Management, joined NEC in 2018 and looked at the College’s history. What she found there and throughout the Management Division is a focus on entrepreneurship. She knew right away that a Shark Tank-style competition was a perfect fit for NEC for three reasons.
One, NEC has a number of faculty who are entrepreneurs themselves, whether they currently have small businesses or previously worked in industry before teaching. They have an innate ability to guide NEC’s entrepreneurial students and ask, “What is your passion and how can we help you develop it?” Hartung stated.
Two, Hartung pointed out that a lot of NEC students, especially those who are first-generation college students, come from families who have their own businesses. Certainly, some of these students want to forge their own careers, but many plan to carry on their family businesses.
Three, modern work increasingly operates in the gig economy. As Hartung noted, today’s students do not necessarily expect to land a job and stay with an employer for 40 years. So often, they expect to do project work, and doing that work is becoming the new norm for college graduates.
To launch NEC’s Shark Tank-style competition, Hartung worked with Michele Jurgens, Associate Professor of Business, and Lindsay Coats, Director of Career and Life Planning, to make it a reality. Hartung and Jurgens developed the logistics for the first event, and Coats engaged with alumni to serve as mentors, speakers, or judges.
“We saw right away in the first year that students relished the opportunity to share their ideas and see if the judges would bite,” recalled Jurgens. After the first competition, Jurgens became the lead and hosted the event for two years during the pandemic, expanding it to also include a livestream.
The first two NEC Shark Tank competitions were open to undergraduate on-campus students. For spring 2022, the event’s leadership team staged two competitions—one for on-campus undergraduate students and one for online undergraduate and graduate students—that will be the format going forward.
Students of any major, not just business programs, are invited to participate. Jurgens commented that they have seen “some awesome ideas from NEC’s Institute of Art and Design students.” Interested students start by completing a brief online survey before interviewing with the application committee, submitting more-detailed idea information, and meeting with their mentors. In the end, ideally six finalists (in its first year, the online demographic produced three finalists) are chosen from each demographic to present their ideas to the panel of judges.
After moving through this process over the course of a month, students stand to gain more than bragging rights for a winning idea.
First, judges select first- and second-place winners, who receive $500 and $250, respectively. “It means something to students that NEC and the Management Division offer seed money for the top two ideas,” Coats stated. “It says, ‘We believe in you and your idea.’” Additionally, the audience chooses their favorite idea, and that student receives $100.
Second, all the students who participate have fun. Hartung and Jurgens are committed to creating “learning outcomes that are wrapped up in fun and excitement and, ultimately, empowerment,” Coats said.
Third, mentoring, mentoring, mentoring. For Jurgens, this element of NEC Shark Tank offers the highest value for students. “There’s a real opportunity to mentor students on how to talk about their ideas for three to five minutes and sell someone else on those ideas. We all know that to be successful in business, whether you’re an accountant or a marketing professional or an entrepreneur, you need to be able to sell your ideas.” Students gain confidence and enthusiasm for the pitch, even if they do not go on to start a business.
The mentoring component, which grows more robust each year, includes connecting students with alumni and members of the business community beyond NEC. These experienced professionals teach students to be mentees and to work collaboratively.
Leading up to NEC Shark Tank 2023, Jurgens added, she and her team will emphasize mentoring even more. Event promotion began this fall, well before the spring event; the application process will start sooner; and students will receive more support along the way. Ideally, more alumni will volunteer to help guide NEC’s young entrepreneurs.
Jurgens remarked that successful entrepreneurs rarely get it right on their first tries; the process takes practice. Students who participate in NEC Shark Tank learn how the process works, from vetting their ideas to doing market research. And if a first idea fails to take off, students will be that much more ready for the next big idea.
If you are an alumni or business professional who would like to get involved with NEC’s Shark Tank competition, please contact the NEC’s Career and Life Planning office at firstname.lastname@example.org.
HALIMA AUDU | MS IN CYBERSECURITY ’23
NEC SHARK TANK 2022 CONTESTANT AND WINNER OF ONLINE DEMOGRAPHIC
IDEA: HAIR PASS
“The idea I pitched was to create an app that connects individuals with hair stylists when in a new city. It would be subscription based so clients would not need to worry about price differences in different locations. My experience with NEC Shark Tank was exceptional. My mentor was very helpful in guiding me and supporting me to present my idea. I liked that the process and deliverables were clear because this allowed me to remain focused. I learned how to be concise and focus on solving a problem with my idea. I think every student would gain immensely just by participating. I am happy I won and look forward to seeing my idea become reality.”
NYAH PIPER | BIOLOGY ’22
NEC SHARK TANK 2022 CONTESTANT AND AUDIENCE CHOICE WINNER
IDEA: STUDENT FARMERS MARKET
“I earned my BS in Biology this past spring and am working towards my MS in Data Science and Analytics ’23. I really enjoyed participating in NEC’s Shark Tank event, and my favorite part was getting to see the other contestants’ ideas, as well as getting feedback about the farmers market that I spoke of. I learned that sometimes ideas don’t have to be original to win and that you always need a hook to bait the crowd. I encourage everyone who has an idea to compete in NEC Shark Tank. It’s a great feeling to build a business plan and to share it with others!
NATE SHAW | BUSINESS ADMINISTRATION ’00 and MBA IN STRATEGIC LEADERSHIP ’15
SHARK TANK JUDGE
“Seeing the imagination and ingenuity of the students was fantastic. It takes out-of-the-box thinkers to create innovative businesses that continue to make our economy the best in the world. Watching the younger generation present in front of their peers and community will make them stronger and more confident to take on business and real-world challenges.”