2 SVC students will represent school in 'Real Elevator Pitch'

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BENNINGTON — Two Southern Vermont College students will represent their college on the national stage this weekend, as they take part in St. Louis University's sixth annual "Real Elevator Pitch" competition.

This Sunday, Dec. 3, Ally McNamee and Nikolas Joseph will travel to St. Louis, where they will literally climb into an elevator with the competition's judges, and will have a mere 45 seconds to pitch their product ideas. Each of the students will take nine different elevator rides, with 25 investors in total. Pitches begin when the student steps into the elevator, and ends when the doors open. The three students who collect the most business cards will receive cash prizes.

Associate Professor Jeb Gorham and The McCormick Division of Business Chairwoman Stacey Hills have been mentoring entrepreneurial-minded students since the college's Sustainable Ventures Program was instituted in 2015. Since that time, students from the program have been named a non-profit finalist at Davidson College's "The Next Play" in 2015; a top-50 finalist at "The Big Sell" at Purdue University Calumet in 2016 and top-12 finalist in 2017; a top-12 finalist at ABQid's "Ski Lift Pitch" in Taos, New Mexico in 2016 and top three in 2017; and a top three finisher at 1Berkshire "Food, Farming and Agriculture Pitch" in 2016.

In total, 18 students will be participating in the finals this weekend, nine in the for-profit category and nine in the not-for-profit category. Both SVC students will be pitching for-profit products. McNamee and Joseph were named finalists after submitting a 30-second video pitch. Gorham said that a third SVC student with an equally viable pitch also entered the competition, but was not selected.

Joseph will be pitching a greenhouse-based hop-growing model designed to help prevent crop shortages in regions with limited growing seasons. McNamee will be pitching an all-natural, down alternative fill for sports apparel and home goods.

The Sustainable Ventures program is broken into "New Ventures" in the fall and "Applied Ventures" in the spring. Gorham said the goal of the program is to get students into an entrepreneurial mindset and to get them involved with local businesses. Those partnerships have included most of the businesses downtown, he said, including Madison's Brewing Company and Gamer's Grotto.

"We're trying to get students involved," he said. "When we do that we've found that students get the idea, 'Hey, I could start my own company.'"

Both of the projects that will be pitched this weekend have been collaborative efforts. Joseph's hop project was envisioned and pitched by students in a Facilities Management class several years ago, but wasn't able to be sustained after they graduated and moved in different career directions. Joseph took up the reins this year at Gorham's suggestion. McNamee, who isn't a member of the Sustainable Ventures program but has been working closely with Gorham and Hills, along with other students and faculty, on the down project since she was recruited by Gorham to pitch it at a competition in Indianapolis last year.

"When I first got asked to work on the project, I never thought we would be where we are today. Without the help of Jeb and Stacey, I would never have the confidence in my ability to pitch to potential investors and business executives. It is an amazing opportunity, and I cannot wait to represent SVC again in another major competition."

McNamee said that her biggest takeaway from the Indianapolis competition was the importance of confidence, but stressed that this weekend's pitch was entirely different, in that she had six minutes and a partner to help make her pitch last year.

Joseph has never attended a competition like this before, but said that his time working in the admissions office and giving campus tours has made him comfortable interacting with complete strangers. "I'm nervous, but I think I'll be fine," he said.

Both students have been practicing their pitches at every opportunity. "We have the pitches down," said Joseph. "Every class I pitch it about five times. Its just repetition at this point."

Gorham said that the 15 students in the program are all familiar with each other's projects and are constantly helping each other improve. Beyond that, the help of other faculty, alumni, and community members has also been enlisted along the way. Gorham said that the students ventures are constantly being honed, every week, because of new ideas or information, or charges to the broader market.

William Gardner of Madison's Brewing Company, who also operates HopRidge Farms in Johnsonville, New York, has been an advisor on the hop project, which has also received input from Jen Kimmich of Alchemist Brewing in Stowe. Meridy Capella of Evergreen Alterations in Bennington helped to provide McNamee with a prototype jacket. "We're constantly bringing in new people to talk with," said Gorham.

Last year's winners in the for-profit division were Fiona Kalensky from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (enrollment 44,000), George Daniel from the University of Minnesota (enrollment 51,000), and Amanda Chan from the University of Waterloo in Canada (enrollment 37,000). While SVC (enrollment 400) doesn't have the student body or financial resources of these larger schools, their two representatives will aim to show this weekend that small schools can still produce big ideas.

Derek Carson can be reached at dcarson@benningtonbanner.com, at @DerekCarsonBB on Twitter and 802-447-7567, ext. 122.

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