In a spirited bid to claim the next big idea, St. John’s University students gathered on the Queens, NY, campus for a day of flexing their entrepreneurial muscles before judges who included professors and industry professionals at the second annual Pitch Johnny Competition.
Twenty-two teams composed of 31 students delivered presentations on their original start-up ideas on Saturday, November 10, at the College of Professional Studies(CPS)’s Farella Innovation Laboratory in St. Augustine Hall. At stake were prizes of up to $1,000 and a chance to compete next spring in a new startup challenge. “We had competitors from all over the University, and the students represented all of St. John’s undergraduate schools and colleges for this year’s event,” said Kevin James ’11C, ’13MBA, Assistant Dean, Associate Director of Operations for CPS, and the lead organizer for Pitch Johnny 2018.
“This Pitch competition is part of a broader set of activities that CPS has launched in the area of innovation and entrepreneurship,” said Katia Passerini, Ph.D., Dean, CPS. “Students can enroll in a full minor or just take selected courses that use a design-thinking approach to foster creativity and innovation.”
Students were divided into three tracks: undergraduates, women, and nonprofits, which was introduced at this year’s Pitch Johnny. “We decided to create a nonprofit category that speaks to our dedication to St. John’s Vincentian mission of giving help to those in need,” Dean James explained. “We also wanted to open an avenue to innovative ideas designed to benefit the common good.”
Students had the opportunity to network with, and receive valuable feedback from, the guest judges, many of whom were St. John’s alumni and represented a broad range of professions that included accounting, advertising, business, communications, entrepreneurship, finance, law, and television. Dean Passerini later thanked the judges for sharing their knowledge and feedback.
Contestants were limited to two or three minutes in making their presentations, and no more than two persons per team were permitted to pitch. PowerPoint presentations were not allowed and flashcards were acceptable but not recommended. Judges evaluated each pitch on criteria that included whether team members adequately proved the feasibility of their idea; whether the team presented a relevant problem and if their idea solved the problem; and whether the team demonstrated why their idea has value and that their innovation was the best suited for solving the market need.
In addition, team members were judged on the level of passion they brought to their pitches. “Passion is important because passion drives people to buy your product,” said Dean James. “Your idea might not be perfect, but if you convince people to take a chance on your idea, they will not only follow you, they will partner with you.”
Students’ ideas included a biodegradable medical glove designed to reduce the impact of medical waste on the environment; an art museum that offers patrons physical space and supplies to create their own artistic works; a tooth powder for people to clean their teeth in the aftermath of a hurricane or other disaster; and a public skateboard-sharing transportation system for New York City.
Luca Iandoli, Ph.D., Associate Dean for Global and Online Programs at CPS, and Associate Professor in the Division of Computer Science, Mathematics, and Science, delivered the welcoming address.
“At CPS and St. John’s, we believe that innovation and entrepreneurship are key skills for our students. It is not only about creating a company. We want to help our students develop a new mindset that is based on solving a real problem in a creative and independent way,” Dr. Iandoli explained to the contestants and their families.
“Without the skills of problem solving, creativity, and innovation, we will become increasingly expendable.”
During his keynote speech, Steve Farella ’77SVC, founding CEO of Havas Media, Chair of the Advisory Committee for CPS, and for whom the Farella Innovation Laboratory was named, focused on the role feasibility plays in the development of a new idea.
“Do not let the thought that your idea may not be feasible stop you,” Mr. Farella said. “You must continue to work on your idea if you believe in it. It is usual to have failures. I have failed many times; I was fired twice from jobs and my first business failed. But I did not put my tail between my legs—I put my thinking cap on.”
Alexandria Ligon, a junior from Bowie, MD, majoring in Health and Human Services, and junior Magdelene Barjolo, of Wooster, MA, a Psychology major, took the first-place prize of $1,000 for their presentation on Sending Her Essentials (SHE). Their nonprofit organization is designed to provide resources and support to young, disadvantaged women in the areas of feminine hygiene, health and wellness, and character development.
Asked why the pair wanted to compete in this year’s Pitch Johnny, Magdelene explained, “We thought this was a great way to get the word out about our nonprofit. Many young women in war-torn countries and in the inner cities here in the US are lacking basic necessities, such as products that are crucial to their health and wellness.”
Stephanie Papoutsakis, a freshman enrolled in The Peter J. Tobin College of Business, won the second-place cash prize of $500 for her pitch of SnapCase, a multifunctional phone case that includes space for credit cards, a battery charger port, and a shock-absorbing rubber shell that protects a cellular phone if it is dropped.
Noting she created SnapCase with a team of three friends while they were in high school, Stephanie said she has experience pitching her product to a group of strangers. “But this time was different because I have never competed without my team before. They have been texting with me to offer their help and support.”
The $250 third-place prize went to freshman Despina Kotsis for MINX NEW YORK, a fashion line of affordably priced streetwear she designed. Despina, of Staten Island, NY, has already drawn attention from various news media outlets and celebrities for her T-shirt and hoodie designs. “I take this experience as practice in presenting my business,” she said.
“I am starting to gain more self-confidence after competing in Pitch Johnny. Today, I learned I must believe in myself, work hard, and I will achieve my dream.”
Grand-prize winner Alexandria had this advice for blossoming entrepreneurs: “Before you set up your foundation or business organization, make sure the passion is there for benefiting the common good so that your idea can bear the fruit of uplifting the greater society.”
Dean James said the next pitching event is the first-ever BIG EAST Startup Conference, to be hosted March 21 during the BIG EAST Men’s Basketball Tournament. Each of the member colleges of the BIG EAST Conference will send undergraduate competitors to New York City to pitch their idea to a panel of entrepreneurs, venture capitalists, and BIG EAST alumni.