EastBay Today

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Posted December 9, 2019

Welcome to the Shark Tank

Cal State East Bay College of Business and Economics hosts 'Pitch Day'

Students pose for a photo after their first Pitch Day event.
Jordan Chung

Business students recently dove into their own “Shark Tank” experience through Start-it-Up, a  month-long series of workshops created by the Smith Center for Private Enterprise Studies and the Up Club student organization. The program gave undergraduate and graduate students a chance to turn classroom concepts into actual businesses with the potential for real investment and growth. 

“As business students, learning in a classroom and coming up with ‘billion-dollar ideas’ is one thing,” said Sophia Romanova, creator of Jest, a card game geared towards millennials. “Applying what you learn and actually attempting to start a business is true entrepreneurship.”

Coming up with a business plan usually takes months or years, but students were able to complete the process in only a few weeks with supervision and support from faculty. 

Interactive workshops gave teams a chance to look at their idea from every possible angle, fill in the gaps and receive expert advice from faculty and mentors. 

Undergraduate student Jiwanjot Soni and his group came up with Hook-it-Up, an app to connect students to offer services. 

“From our experiences of going to college, many students need everyday tasks delegated to make more time for things they enjoy,” said Soni. “Our Start-It-Up experience has been amazing. It’s honestly given us an opportunity to express our ideas and make it a reality.” 

For other students, Start-It-Up was an opportunity to build on a business model they had already created in class. 

MBA student Ubong Usen created Iniso, a soccer tournament held in his hometown in Nigeria that has expanded into an arts and education program for youth with the hopes of being recognized as a nonprofit here in the US. 

“The most challenging part was finding the partners and guidance on scaling Iniso to take it from where we currently are to becoming a state-recognized organization,” said group member and MBA student Jimmy Shi. 

The vision for Start-it-Up came from the directors of the Smith Center for Private Enterprise Studies Christian Roessler, an economics professor and Izzet Darendeli, a management professor.

“When I became interim director of the Smith Center, my view was that this mission should be primarily achieved not by theoretical advocacy, but by letting students immerse themselves in the market economy and see how they can create value for society through markets,” Roessler said. 

In the past, similar entrepreneurial projects were successful because of the collaboration among faculty, staff and community business leaders. For Roessler and the Smith Center, Start-It-Up was no exception. 

“I brought in Izzet as the first Smith Center Associate Director from outside the Economics Department, in order to add his passion, connections, and practical expertise in entrepreneurship to the Smith Center’s capabilities,” he said. 

“We started back in 2018, thanks to generous support by the Smith family. We have been doing smaller-scale events closely connected to our MBA programs,” Darendeli said. “We are trying to create an ecosystem in CBE, and it takes a village. It takes time, but I’m really excited that we are kick-starting it.” 

Similar to “Shark Tank,” each group presented and answered questions in front of a panel of judges consisting of alumni and community leaders who are CEOs, venture capitalists, and entrepreneurs. Instead of a “handshake deal” and direct investment from the judges themselves, the teams that placed won prizes donated by CBE. 

Honorable mention went to Iniso. The third-place prize of $2,000 went to PentaRx, an open electronic healthcare database, and Jest came in second place, winning a prize of $3,000.  

But the team that stood out from the rest was Bonty. 

Bonty is “an electric facial cleansing brush designed to reach target areas that traditional brushes cannot,” said founder Elizabeth Reyes. “It is sustainable, effective, and gentle for all skin types.” 

Reyes said she personally saw a need for better skincare brushes. 

“I was inspired by the need to cleanse my face with a brush that could be as gentle as my hand but more precise than a traditional facial brush,” she said. “Many struggle with finding the perfect cleansing brush due to high prices and lack of effectiveness, it should not be as difficult.” 

Reyes said that while winning $5,000 and other web and marketing prizes is a huge achievement, her biggest reward is the connections she’s made through the workshops. 

“My experience with Start-it-Up has been life-changing," she said. "I’ve gotten the chance to view some individuals as mentors and truly witness their strong suits … I got to make great connections and work with admiring individuals, such as my teammate, Gabriella Johnson."

CBE Dean George Low said the inaugural event was a 'huge success' that aligned perfectly with the missions of the college and Smith Center. 

“We look forward to future Pitch Days and the impact that this program will have on building an entrepreneurship ecosystem for Cal State East Bay students,” he said. 

For the winning teams, Roessler said this is only the beginning. 

“The Smith Center’s task is now to help the teams take advantage of these resources, to maximize their long-run business success, their personal learning, and their positive impact on other students. We hope that Start-It-Up will be an integral part of the student experience at Cal State East Bay, providing a wide spectrum of students with opportunities to contribute to solving practical problems — perhaps as founders, perhaps as specialists — in partnership with alumni and other supporters of the university.”