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At Howard's entrepreneurial 'shark' competition, top ideas have bytes

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On the reality TV program "Shark Tank," investors bicker, maneuver and generally steal the thunder from aspiring entrepreneurs who come before them to pitch ideas.

Unlike the Tin Man who clanks and clatters as he nervously asks the Wizard of Oz for a heart, brazen contestants work at stirring the aptly named sharks into a feeding frenzy of investment offers in order to clinch the most lucrative deal.

At Howard Community College, the Center for Entrepreneurial and Business Excellence was founded a decade ago — six years before "Shark Tank" debuted in 2009. Still, Hollywood's approach was flipped 180 degrees last week at the Fall Entrepreneurial Celebration to showcase the students as they competed in a kinder, gentler version of the popular show, with a few tweaks.

"This is a holistic endeavor," said Sharon Pierce, vice president of academic affairs, as she introduced the competition's premise to the audience. "Students must talk effectively and be a whole person, or they won't get far as entrepreneurs."

The night's winner, John Kim, not only took the top prize of $500, he also snared a shark from the audience with his idea for an application that allows students to make good use of down time between classes. Hunter Tessier took second place, and $250, for a video game platform that makes games available to players anywhere and on any device.

Kathleen Hetherington, HCC president, said during intermission that the number of viable ideas was impressive and continues to grow over the years.

"That's not to say that a far-fetched idea couldn't be the idea that makes a million dollars," she said. "But all the presentations were solid, and the students' thoughtfulness, maturity and confidence came through."

Ten students were selected from a pool of 200 enrolled in Entrepreneurship and Creativity to present proposals for new businesses and products to a panel of three judges. Held Dec. 5, the competition is repeated during the spring semester.

The college's judges don't interrogate, berate or humiliate the presenters. In fact, they don't ask any questions or deliver any criticisms. Points are awarded by each judge in such categories as originality, business scalability, presentation with eye contact and financial model.

Pitches must be three to five minutes long and use no more than four slides, which cover items such as estimated startup costs and target market. Points are deducted if a pitch is too short or too long, and those that run over are halted.

Online businesses were popular with student presenters. Aside from the two winners, proposals included Flow, Matthew Buzard's idea for a nonjudgmental social networking platform for expressing opinions, and Gym Buddy, an app that Rebecca Jonas said would help users find new friends with compatible workout habits.

Ideas for companies included Cuppy Cakery, which Yasmin Noohi described as a Build-A-Bear Factory for cupcakes with the promise to "take the mess away and add fun," and L'elegance, a fashion boutique which Freddy Ramirez said "prioritizes the customer experience" and lets shoppers "go wild with customization."

The entrepreneurial program debuted in 2003 in response to feedback from the community during one of HCC's Commission on the Future planning sessions held every five years, according to Betty Noble, director of the college's Center for Entrepreneurial and Business Excellence.

"HCC is definitely ahead of the curve" in entrepreneurial programming, Noble said, noting the school is one of the few to offer one-on-one coaching.

Across the country only 25 percent to 30 percent of community colleges offer entrepreneurial degree programs, she estimated. In Maryland, Harford Community College has noncredit classes, Anne Arundel Community College offers courses through its Entrepreneurial Studies Department and Garrett College is just starting a program, she said.

Kim, a 21-year-old sophomore who lives in Ellicott City, pitched the winning idea for a smartphone app called Sho-Planner that would allow students to compare their college schedules to find out who's free between classes in order to make socializing more effective.

"It lets you know who's available to hang out so you don't have to worry about those awkward gap times," he told the audience, adding it is especially applicable to community college students who don't have a dorm to return to while they await their next class.

The app would also allow users to compare their academic schedules to the college's schedule of events, he said.

Listening intently from the audience was Irina Vishnevetsky, an executive strategist and a member of the Howard Tech Council. She approached Kim during the evening's first intermission, before the winners were even announced.

"When I heard John's pitch, I knew there would be interest," she said, explaining she hopes to present his concept to a panel of investors. "It may have been a class project, but it's viable and has scalability and implementation possibilities."

Gamers Online was another "real obvious app," she said, and she also liked Thunder Bolt Cases, a concept by Matthew Wolek for a kinetically charged phone case.

Tessier, a 19-year-old sophomore from Laurel, told the audience that Gamers Online "will let you carry all of your video games in your pocket" and said it's "an actual company" that plans to launch Jan. 1.

Noble said that out of the 200 students that take ENTR 101 every semester, the college's goal "is to have a quarter of them take the next step.

"John's idea needs further development, but it's ready now from a conceptual standpoint and we have enough resources to surround him very quickly," she said. "The intent is for someone to work at coaching him. If there's a perfect storm, then he's it."

Julie Lenzer Kirk, executive director of the Howard-based Maryland Center for Entrepreneurship, said HCC "really leverages its community connections" to help students and adults advance in the entrepreneurial world.

"It's that whole idea that it takes a village," Kirk said, adding that the college's approach is "more than academic."

Kim said afterward he will probably transfer to the University of Maryland, College Park, to study finance and accounting. But now, after winning first place in the HCC competition and discovering there's real-world potential in his idea, he may rethink his next steps to include further work on Sho-Planner.

"At first I had no intention of taking my idea further," he said. "But one of the things we learned in class was to become a divergent thinker. That's the main thing for me now."

For more information on the Center for Entrepreneurship and Business Excellence at Howard Community College, call 443-518-4111.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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