Imagine yourself standing in front of a room with 300 strangers who are there to cast judgment on every word you say. Imagine that their decision could possibly affect your entire career future. Imagine that you’ve only got two minutes to impress them.
That was the real life scenario competitors faced at the First Annual Collegiate Entrepreneurs’ Organization (CEO) Elevator Pitch Competition. The event was one of the highlights of the recent CEO (www.c-e-o.org) annual conference in Chicago. More than 1,000 of the country’s top entrepreneurial students flocked to the windy city to network with their peers, hear speeches from top business leaders and compete for awards.
Many of those students had vied for one of only 10 elevator pitch competitor slots available (an eleventh slot was added to the roster at the last minute.) The surviving entries qualified to pitch their business ideas to a live audience. The winners would earn cash prizes and a coveted cover appearance on YOUNG MONEY magazine.
Here’s how it worked: Students were given two minutes to explain their business idea and convince an imaginary businessperson to invest in their company. The two-minute period represents the time you’d have to share a long elevator ride with that potential investor.
YOUNG MONEY served as a co-sponsor of the event and was there to follow the competitors throughout the day. What follows is an exclusive behind-the-scenes view of the CEO Elevator Pitch Competition.
11:20 a.m. Organizers and competitors meet for the first time to go over the rules. Each participant is given an opportunity to talk with volunteer mentors and get advice on improving their presentations. Competitors listen intently as judges tell them what criteria they’ll be using to score their efforts.
“I’m looking for enthusiasm and clarity,” says Ron Rubin, chairman of the board of the Republic of Tea©, a leading purveyor of premium teas. “They should cover all the bases. I’m also looking for ideas that show innovation.”
The winners will share a total of $500 in prizes. That sum is not nearly enough to start even a small company. So if money isn’t a big motivating factor, then why else would someone put themselves through this type of stress?
“To get my idea in front of an audience and get feedback,” explains Tanya Payne, a senior from Middle Tennessee State University who wants to start a health food drive-through restaurant called Go Healthy. “I hope that there’s an investor in the crowd who will be interested in my idea. If that doesn’t happen, then I can still get ideas on how to improve the pitch and the venture.”
2:55 p.m. Lunch is over and most students are busy making their final preparations. However, presenter Mark Celio seems surprisingly calm as he heads off to attend a conference workshop. Later this evening, the Loyola Marymount University senior will be pitching his Dimes and Dreams concept, a nonprofit organization dedicated to forging partnerships among non-profit groups in order to increase donations and draw good publicity for their causes.
Celio had a friend record his presentation weeks earlier so that he could work on his delivery. However, the young entrepreneur is prepared to make adjustments during his presentation.
“I don’t think memorization really works,” he says. “It’s like a football team that plans out their first 20 offensive plays of a game. You can run the plays but that doesn’t account for changes that happen during the game.”
5:10 p.m. The event is finally set to begin and the large conference room is filled to capacity. A moderator introduces the competitors and encourages the audience to get involved by clapping and cheering for their favorite pitch. The venue soon takes on the atmosphere of a raucous talent show.
The competition uses an “American Idol” style format in which a panel of five judges is asked to share their comments after each presentation. But the students can breathe a sigh of relief since there is no mercenary Simon-type character to criticize their performance. Instead, the judges offer mostly positive encouragement and point out strengths and areas for improvement. The judges will award prizes to the top three competitors while audience members pick an “Audience Favorite Award” winner via a secret ballot.
The moment of truth has arrived and each team appears to have its own unique strategy for influencing the judges. Twin sisters Catherine and Monica MacGillivray of Loyola Marymount University demonstrate faith in their custom-designed cookie business by giving homemade samples to the entire judging panel. Brigham Young University students Adam Abraham and Kolby Oswald show an unbridled enthusiasm for their genealogy company by using lively hand gestures and talking in fast-paced excited tones.
The audience is also treated to a fascinating display of how different people handle pressure situations. Embry Riddle’s Leonard Antico is remarkably cool and relaxed as he breezes through a PowerPoint presentation for his 24-hour mobile aircraft detailing service. On the other hand, one student’s hands are shaking noticeably as he shuffles his note cards during a pitch. Another competitor loses his train of thought momentarily and suffers through an awkward silence before regaining his composure.
Overall, the quality of the presentations impresses even the experts on hand. You can’t escape the feeling that one of the competitors in that room is going to be a millionaire someday.
7:45 p.m. The award ceremony is underway and several honors have already been announced, including best CEO chapter, best web page and best business plan. The convention hall begins buzzing with excitement in anticipation of the final award presentation of the evening.
All the competitors are called up to the stage and recognized one final time before the winners are announced. It’s rare to see so many sweaty palms and nervous glances in one place other than a hospital waiting room. The spotlight shines brightly on the emcee as he calls out the results. “And the first place winner is …Brigham Young University.”
The audience bursts into applause and a crowd of people rush to congratulate the winners. The BYU team’s idea is named One Page Genealogy and boasts a new technology that allows a user to print out an entire family tree on a single sheet of paper. For example, a person could trace their lineage back to the 1300s and display the results instantly on a 3′ x 4′ document. The group now hopes to enter its school’s own elevator pitch competition and have the business up and running by mid-2004.
“I had no idea we would win,” says Kolby Oswald, a senior accounting major at BYU whose presentation had drawn loud applause from spectators. “We did it for the experience. There’s a huge network of business contacts at the CEO conference. If the right people are interested, then they’ll contact us.”
Next year, a whole new group of students will put themselves to the ultimate test. The competition will be just as tough and no one will escape feeling the pressure. But there’s always the chance that somebody in the audience could turn one winner’s dream into reality. So the real question is this – Do you have what it takes to go against the best?
© 2008, Young Money Media, LLC. All rights reserved.
CEO Elevator Pitch Competition 2003
1st Place: Kolby Oswald and Adam Abraham, Brigham Young University.
One Page Genealogy – Genealogy software.
2nd Place: Leonard Antico, Embry Riddle Aeronautical University.
LantAir Detail – Mobile aircraft detailing services.
3rd Place: Willa Qian, University of Notre Dame.
Wireless Waiter System – Wireless technology for streamlining restaurant services.
Audience Favorite Award: Leonard Antico, Embry Riddle Aeronautical University.