The Next Big Idea

Students Pitch their Business Plans at 2012 Sy Syms Entrepreneurship Competition

A Web site that makes personal training available to exercise novices in their own homes. A Facebook app that offers one-on-one tutoring and keeps track of students’ coursework. An organization that enables college students to bring their love of science to classrooms in public schools across the country. A sandwich company that delivers one meal to a homeless person for every sandwich it sells.

Bella Frankel presents her idea—a comparative shopping search engine—before the judges at the Fast-Pitch Competition.

These were just a few of the ideas in the running for the grand prize at the 2012 Ira Rennert Entrepreneurship Institute Fast-Pitch Competition, presented by Yeshiva University’s Sy Syms School of Business on May 9.

Ten student finalists brought their innovation, individuality and strategic thinking to bat as they competed for three top awards. Each finalist presented a business model before a panel of seven judges, comprised of business executives, venture capitalists and entrepreneurs. Judges offered comments and insight, suggesting ways to strengthen weak spots in students’ plans and take their ideas to the next level.

“The competition is a great way of helping our students at Syms, Yeshiva College and Stern to develop and build their business ideas and provides them with access to experts who can give them valuable advice and feedback,” said event organizer, Dr. Brian Maruffi, professor of management at Syms and director of the Ira Rennert Entrepreneurship Institute. “It puts students through the steps of targeting potential business opportunities and analyzing their feasibility.”

“Being able to present one’s plan in a friendly and yet professional environment provides an excellent opportunity for our students to receive feedback, feedback that might be priceless in some cases,” said Dr. Tamar Avnet, one of the competition’s judges and an assistant professor of marketing at Syms. “In addition, this competition simulates on some level the way their plans will be responded to in real life… It also helps them manage their expectations.”

Business executive, Jesse Rosen, and a team of judges offered presenters feedback on how to take their ideas to the next level.

Saul Orbach, a seasoned management and executive leadership professional, agreed. “For the serious entrepreneur who wants to advance his or her business and raise capital, this was an opportunity for a ‘dry run’ on mostly friendly grounds,” he said. “The ones who learn the lessons, pay attention to the judges’ questions, solicit their feedback—you don’t often get that opportunity in the real world—and internalize it all will come out way ahead the next time they present, raise money, apply for a loan, do a sales presentation and so on.”

That input was deeply impactful for presenters like Alan Avitan ’13SB, who proposed the online fitness Web site. “One of the judges suggested going one step beyond just professional workout videos and really creating an online environment for a healthier lifestyle by partnering with health food companies, creating nutrition plans and blogs, and adding live workout sessions,” he said. “This was really helpful because it made me realize that my idea could be more multidimensional than I thought.”

A notable theme throughout the competition was the students’ emphasis on social responsibility. From START, the teaching group begun by YU students to service needy public schools, to Sandwicharity, the sandwich company that provides matching meals to the homeless, the pitches revealed a passion to give back. “It was heartwarming to see that although our students major in business, they still care about their social environment and the well being of the less fortunate,” said Avnet. “I found that to be refreshing and to reflect on the high quality of our students and the wonderful values they have.”

Omer Haim pitches his business, Sandwhicharity.

The grand prize, a check for $1,000 and more time to flesh out ideas with the judges, went to an organization that aligned with those values perfectly: Saves By B, a sneaker company formed by Zachary Charles ’12SB and his teenage brother that sends an identical pair of shoes to children in need for every pair ordered on its website, savesbyb.com. The company has been featured on New York 1, dosomething.org and other media outlets.

“It was an honor to win. There were a lot of great ideas and to be voted the best is a great accomplishment for me as well as Saves By B,” said Charles, adding that the money would go towards the next shipment of shoes, which will be in different colors. “I learned a lot yesterday, especially about different marketing styles and strategies. Listening to all of the competitors and hearing what the judges had to say about them was helpful as well because I was able to take some of the information they gave them and tie it into my business.

Two runner-ups tied for the second place prize of $750: Sandwicharity and START. Grafi Salads, a preservative-free Mediterranean salad company started by Tal Grafi ’12SB, won third place and received $500.

In addition, Dr. William Schwartz, former vice president of academic affairs at YU and founder of the business plan competition, was presented with an Award for Entrepreneurship Service by Dr. Fred Palumbo, professor and area chair of marketing and management.

Other organizers of the competition included Michael Strauss, associate dean and entrepreneur-in-residence at Syms, and the Business Management Club.

“The hallmark of the outstanding professional, entrepreneur or businessman is not just mastering the mundane knowledge of finance and accounting or other fundamentals, but that additional element of creativity,” Schwartz said. “In essence, this competition, this institute, is designed to encourage the development of your skills as creative individuals.”

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