The process behind the pitch: Wheaton’s Shark Tank

Shark Tank. The phrase immediately brings to mind one of two situations: being lowered down into deep blue waters, surrounded by sharp-toothed sharks with only a wire cage protecting you from death, or standing in front of an imposing array of successful entrepreneurs and a bevy of cameras — oh, and the entire world — to pitch your business idea on the hit American television show, “Shark Tank.” Each situation seems intimidating and involves a certain amount of risk.

Wheaton’s very own Shark Tank program aims to dispel the fear of sharing your innovations with the world. Led by the Student Alumni Board in partnership with the Center for Vocation and Career, Young Alumni and Student Programs and Student Government — among other organizations — Wheaton’s Shark Tank is a chance for Wheaton students from every major and class to work with business people in a Christian context to come up with novel solutions to everyday problems. According to Shark Tank co-lead and marketing director, sophomore Danny Du, the aim is to “pull over those young aspiring talents from all kinds of majors and set up a stage and allow them to cooperate and synergize together to achieve great success.”

The Shark Tank team formulated a program schedule that would allow students interested in entrepreneurship unlimited access to mentors and resources, Du said. Using these resources, students can refine their mission and business pitch in preparation for the big competition, tentatively set to occur March 22, 2018. This schedule has four phases:

First, the kickoff information night in the fall semester provided interested students with an opportunity to learn more about the event. Most of the current Shark Tank participants first got “hooked” from this event. Junior Mercy Barrial, a current contestant, told me that her recent move into entrepreneurship was unexpected, but has since jump-started her business ideas. “My vocation is something that I’ve always seen as wrapped up in multiple different interests,” she explained. For Barrial, Shark Tank is a way for her to merge her passions about dance into business: She hopes to create a three-tiered dance studio, which would incorporate ministry and professional dance. “ God bringing in one of my big passions in a way I didn’t expect him to,” Barriel said.

Next, interested students retreated to the “Space Event,” a brainstorming session that occurs in The Space, a house donated by a Wheaton professor. Here, tentative teams came up with potential ideas that they would continue to refine in different phases of Shark Tank. Contestants brought their ideas to faculty and alumni judges for approval — just like in the famous show — on “pitch night,” which occurred in the middle of December. Laughing, Shark Tank contestant Daniel Small (‘19) described this night as “difficult, because there wasn’t much instruction, they were kind of free with it … they were like ‘sell us your idea.’” This ambiguity incited the teams to make the case for their businesses stronger in an effort to impress the alumni judges. However, Damon Winters, Regional Director of Development for Wheaton College,  said that “ Shark Tank is so much more than just the pitch night; it teaches a disciplined, innovative way of tackling and surmounting problems, whether global or personal in scale, or social or commercial in scope. The skills these teams practice have universal applicability and the ability to truly change society on any level.”

One way that Du’s team seeks to catalyze the learning process is through the “accelerate” phase which occurs after the pitch night. The remaining teams are equipped with alumni mentorship, allowing them to learn more about the business world and the importance of networking to improve their product, largely through an event entitled Incubator. Senior Natalie Bishop, the contestant liaison for Shark Tank, leads Incubator, the flagship program of the accelerate phase. The Incubator provides students with the resources, such as alumni mentorship, workshops and chances to meet local entrepreneurs during Entrepreneurship Week, necessary to go forward with their ideas. “We want to give them what they need so that once done with Shark Tank they feel prepared to take their idea — or any idea — into the real world,” Bishop said. Bishop describes Incubator as a “sandbox,” in which Shark Tank teams can play with their ideas, refining them and changing them to fit changing world needs.

Du described his experience with Shark Tank as being intricately connected with the concept of Christian mission. Originally from Shanghai, China, he considers how mission looks different in a profit-driven, professional context. He believes that being educated in business, regardless of major, becomes a means to share Christ’s love with countries that have hostile, stringent monitoring of evangelism. “Business, in my perspective,” Du said, “is a mission that is so penetrating that it can apply to every country in the world…. If you come to China or Saudi Arabia as a business , people will open their hands and welcome you.” Du believes that Wheaton’s Shark Tank provides a unique opportunity for students to practice engaging with their vocational aspirations in combination with their deepest passions and beliefs. “I think one of the problems we have — at least, as I’ve observed in America — is people separating work and missions, separating work and religion…. I think can break this impasse,” Du explained.

Small remembered wrestling with questions of how his business savvy could combine with his Christian beliefs as he developed his business idea, an app that is a comprehensive inventory management system aimed at small businesses.  He wondered “‘How is this beneficial, why is this something that’s worth our time’ — outside of just trying to live and make money.” Small’s passion is supporting small business owners and he sees his business idea as conducive to Christian ministry. “I think one of the biggest things in business is the aspect of communicating with other people and meeting people along the way. We have an opportunity as Christians to communicate life even in those simple interactions,” Small explained.

This idea is called social entrepreneurship and Student Alumni Board is particularly interested in the expansion of this priority as opposed to the product invention emphasized in previous years. “We don’t want to define entrepreneurship as exclusively money-driven,” Du clarified. “Wheaton College is entrepreneurship…and some of the greatest inventors and entrepreneurs in the world, they started their business not just solely about money but for a cause with a mission.” Du described the business model of Compassion International, an organization that connects sponsors and families with children around the world as an inspiration for this initiative. Compassion Founder Rev. Everett Swanson exemplified the kind of social entrepreneurship SAB hopes to foster: spotting a need in the world, carefully thinking through how to address it, then finding funding to address that need.

Senior Parker Samelson, a current contestant, said he believes that business and ministry can occupy different roles — though for Samelson, the process of engaging with Shark Tank has been a step into the realm of Christian social entrepreneurship. But Samelson made sure to clarify that starting a profit-based, rather than ministry-based, business is still equally valid for a Christian in the business world. “Global awareness has kind of enlightened the dangers of just….  giving away things to hurting peoples. Instead, the equipping of people to be able to run their own enterprises is exciting,” Samelson told me. Essentially, a business that is profit-driven but has a mission to empower others in a specific way is still a socially conscious business. Profit is not antithetical to social entrepreneurship; on the contrary, a socially conscious business emphasizes the enablement of more people who are hurting to become employed and to have productive careers.

The process of finding a cause and taking action allows students to make connections with successful alumni. Bishop described student-alumni connections as the most fulfilling part of her job. “ all have such interesting backgrounds and career paths. It’s been fun to see the different ways you can go after leaving Wheaton.”

Alumni are also excited to assist with this five-year-old program. In her role as Associate Director of Student and Young Alumni Programs in the Alumni and Parent Engagement Office, Christy Vosberg (‘11) said she loves seeing the “intersection of innovation, beauty and community.” When Vosberg contacted some alumni to ask if they would serve as mentors for the Shark Tank teams, nearly every person had enthusiastically responded within 24 hours.

Just as Vosberg and Bishop are passionate about incorporating alumni into student business projects, Du thrives on connecting students across Wheaton’s campus. As marketing director, Du is a self-proclaimed “people person” who loves to help students “succeed in something that they care about, to make a difference in the world.” He told me that the ability of Shark Tank to integrate students from multiple majors into a unified team, all within a Christian context, is remarkable. Small added that, for him, getting used to the team dynamic has been humbling. “I realize I need a lot more people than I thought,” Small explained.“Everybody’s able to offer different insights and valuable skills…. Maggie, on our team, is good with design… John is able to understand finance like nobody else. So we tried to all gather these things that we’re good at together and make something happen.”

Shark Tank also brings together the committees that make its events possible. Winters describes the process of interdepartmental teamwork as a reflection of an ideal business model. “They’ve been able to not only identify and focus on the true value-creation aspects of the process, but to also respond to their ‘customer’ (participant) needs and provide them with excellent training and opportunities. In many ways, the SAB team has run Shark Tank like a start-up and they’ve done an impressive job,” Winters said.

Finally, after months of alumni mentorship and refining their ideas, the contestants will move on to the big competition, the Shark Tank finale, set tentatively for March 22. This finale, while pivotal to the program, is a culmination of months of hard work and accumulation of business know-how. Often, whether contestants weren’t planning on entering the competition in the first place or participating in the program had been their life dream, the professional opportunities students receive in a nurturing business environment catalyzes their future vocational aspirations as Christians in the marketplace. “Personally, I’m thrilled to see the themes of entrepreneurship and innovation celebrated and implemented on campus, and more importantly, for students to have the chance to practically explore and test them out,” Winters said. “This is a discipline that you learn by doing. Entrepreneurs and intrapreneurs are everywhere and Wheaton is no exception. Sometimes they just need a chance to rise.”

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