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Winning—and Losing—Students Transformed by $10,000 Pitch Contest

Annual event is culmination of Feliciano Center’s entrepreneurship certificate program

Posted in: Feliciano Center News

Judges with Dollars for Scholars winners, from left, Todd Pettengill, AJ Khubani, Sebastian Swoboda, Jean Camacho, Matthew Szewczyk, Tim Kiss, Randy Jackson and Anthony "Sully" Sullivan.

Countless hours of prep time and a year of hard work – inside and outside the classroom – came down to a five-minute chance to win $10,000 on May 6 in the Feliciano Center for Entrepreneurship’s second annual student pitch competition.

When Dollars for Scholars was announced as the winner of the 2015 TeleBrands Inventors Day for Aspiring Entrepreneurs, the four victorious students said they were overwhelmed and feeling disbelief.

“At the moment I’m more nervous than before,” said Sebastian Swoboda, 22, a junior majoring in management. “My heart is beating like it won’t be in my body anymore.”

Dollars for Scholars designed an app that connects homeowners who need odd jobs done with college students eager for some extra cash. Swoboda and his teammates – Jean Camacho, 22, a junior biology major; Tim Kiss, 20, a junior English major; and Matt Szewczyk, 23, a senior marketing major – complimented the pitches by the other nine teams, saying all were very strong.

“Maybe on just this one day, we were the better guys,” said Swoboda, who thanked the Feliciano Center founders Mimi and Eddie Feliciano; his professor, Jason Frasca; and classroom mentor Peter Kestenbaum. Kiss added, “Everybody here is a winner because of the information we gained and the friendships we made.”

Even the 26 students who didn’t win were feeling like champs after the event.

“As far as I’m concerned, I won today,” said Katie Sferra, a senior Anthropology major, recalling her past discomfort with public speaking and how her voice would shake. “I never thought that I would be able to get up in front of a room of so many people, let alone (judges) Randy Jackson, Todd Pettengill, Anthony Sullivan and AJ Khubani, and barely be nervous. So for me, that’s a win, and I’ll get to have it for the rest of my life.”

Jacqueline Busichio, a senior general humanities major, commented on a life-changing experience, while also crediting her professor, Ross Malaga: “These entrepreneurship courses were the best thing that could have happened to me in my four years of college. You have provided us with information and skills that we will use for the rest of our lives. This certificate has truly changed my life, and I am so excited to see what the future holds for our startup company.”

About 300 people attended the May 6 TeleBrands contest. The pitch competition is the culmination of the Feliciano Center’s nine-credit Certificate of Entrepreneurship program. During the program, the students brainstorm an innovative solution to a real-world problem, validate/test the idea, and learn how to market and pitch their product, service or app to customers. Each team was given at least $1,500 in seed capital – donated by Guy Falzarano, founder and CEO of Lightbridge Academy – to fund their validation and marketing efforts.

“It’s a really authentic entrepreneurial experience. I think the experience was as close to real life as possible in an academic setting,” said Sferra, whose team, Woda Rain Gear, created a covering to protect shoes from rain, snow and mud that – unlike clunky boots – can be rolled up for convenient storage in a purse or briefcase.

View the official photo gallery.

View gallery of candid photos.

The competition is sponsored by TeleBrands, which provides the prize money and covers other costs. TeleBrands’ CEO and president is AJ Khubani, a Montclair State alumnus who served as lead judge on May 6.

“TeleBrands was born at MSU,” said Khubani. “I get excited every time I am on campus, especially when I have the opportunity to speak with students interested in entrepreneurship. I wish there was a program like this when I was in college, but I’m thrilled that there is a program now at the Feliciano Center for Entrepreneurship.  Montclair State University is doing a great job to foster entrepreneurship.”

The other judges were Randy Jackson, former TV music competition judge; and Todd Pettengill, co-host of Todd & Jayde Show in the Morning on WPLJ. Anthony “Sully” Sullivan, a TV pitchman most famous for OxiClean commercials, served as master of ceremonies.

The two professors who taught the advanced entrepreneurship courses were happy with how all 10 teams performed.

“The competition this year was very close. All of the teams were excellent and all worked extremely hard validating their business ideas and perfecting their pitches. On pitch day they exceeded our expectations,” said Malaga, an entrepreneurship professor who taught half the student teams.

Jason Frasca, entrepreneurship instructor and startup mentor, said, “These classes are an intense experience that requires commitment and dedication to learning the process of lean startup, customer validation and mastering presentation skills. Each one of these teams won before the contest began as evidenced by their performance on stage today. Unfortunately, only one team can walk away the official winner, though it was clear, any one of them deserved to be.”

Nearly nonstop practice – and some sleepless nights – were a hallmark of the final days of preparation for pitch day.

On May 6, Brittni Landers woke at 3:30 a.m. and, unable to sleep, began rehearsing her pitch. The senior marketing major tweeted soon after: “4 AM & the excitement is real. #MSUpitch.”
Her team, NoFloe, had designed an all-in-one automobile accessory – basically an ice scraper on steroids with LED flashlight, extended reach, de-icing solution and insulated mitt. Landers’ team members are David Di Somma, junior, political science; Joseph Ford, junior, justice studies; and Marcus Norman, junior, English.

The judges seemed to like NoFloe’s product, with Khubani calling it the “ultimate” ice scraper and adding, “There is a market for the ultimate of anything.”

But in the end, NoFloe was not selected as the winner. Was the experience still worth it?

“One hundred percent,” said Landers. “I gained so much from this program. I still feel like a winner because I grew in so many ways. My public speaking has improved. I’ve learned the value of networking. Even the process itself – all the tests and trials, they benefited my team and myself the most. Each one (tests and trials) was a new learning experience … every single thing we did was a new exploration.”

For example, Landers said she had to learn about 3D printing – her team made a prototype of its product on the Feliciano Center’s 3D printer – and also research the chemicals used in de-icing products.
Some students, like Jessica Weinberg, barely slept the night before, saying they had been waiting a year for the pitch competition. Weinberg, a senior women and gender studies major, practiced with her teammates Busichio and Ryan Afflitto, a senior marketing major, until 11:30 p.m., and then rehearsed on her own until 5 a.m. She was awake at 7.

“I was practicing out loud without the slides, going over what worked and what didn’t. I just couldn’t sleep. Hopefully, it will pay off,” Weinberg, 22, said before the event started.

Weinberg’s team, All-Star Tailgates, was the runner-up selected by the judges. Their product, The Pregamer, is a portable cooler with an extendable eight-foot table that can be used for beer pong, corn hole and other tailgating games. Weinberg, Afflitto and Busichio felt they received useful feedback from the judges that they can use to move their company forward.

Dennis Bone, founding director of the Feliciano Center, said the students’ experience before, during and after May 6 were equally important.

“This is more than a class. The students’ passion and drive to create something special has become the motivating factor in this endeavor,” said Bone. “While the audience saw the final pitches today, that was just the end of a year-long journey of the students’ hard work, successes, failures and, most importantly, growth and self-discovery. Equally important is how the students who didn’t win today react to that disappointment, and how they move forward from here, which is a very valuable lesson because entrepreneurs need to know how to bounce back from failure. I could not be more proud of these students.”

Overall, the students took defeat in stride.

“This was really a great opportunity to set goals for myself,” said Ashley Ormsby, 22, a senior management major. “Even though we didn’t win, we executed so well, so my goal was accomplished.” Ormsby was on the Woda Rain Gear team with Sferra and Jonathan Maldonado, a junior general humanities major.

Senior Amara Higgins agreed. “No matter what happens, we’re all winners,” said Higgins, a dual major in finance and economics, who was on the SEY Finance team, a social entrepreneurship nonprofit that teaches the basics of financial literacy to high school students. Her teammates are Lorraine Muniz, senior, psychology; and Valerie Pugh, junior, biology.

Khubani summed it up: “I was extremely pleased with the presentations at the 2015 TeleBrands Inventors Day for Aspiring Entrepreneurs. I hope the winners of the $10,000 from TeleBrands will use the winning funds to invest in their project. Most importantly, they should pursue their dreams. On behalf of myself, Randy Jackson, Todd Pettengill and Anthony Sullivan, I share that all four of the judges had a wonderful time and enjoyed being part of the MSU Feliciano Center program.”

The other student teams that pitched on May 6 were:

  • PicLow: Altarik Banks, sophomore undeclared; Peter Kalogeropoulos, sophomore undeclared
  • Acu-Dose: Verolisa Ogando, senior, psychology; Neha Patel, MBA, management
  • Sheeq: Gabriella Carputo, junior, Italian; Shakila Haidari, senior, management information systems; Rami Mamary, sophomore undeclared; Shamika Pandit, senior, psychology
  • Gristycon: Kessia Khadine Williams, MBA, marketing and management
  • ReminU: Matthew Ferro, junior, mathematics; George Holmes Jr., senior, management; Priscilla Ofori, junior, mathematics; Ashley Zahabian, sophomore, economics

View an NJTV video about the event.

Read TAPinto story about the event.