The following is a student’s first-person account of participating in the second annual UPitchNJ collegiate entrepreneurship contest, held April 28 at Princeton University.
By Kristen Martinelli
I wasn’t nervous until we walked into the auditorium style room at Princeton University.
The pitched seating seemed huge. The room’s layout and presentation placement forced us to rely on our memory when presenting. No assistance from a nearby laptop to see what was next. In between bites of pizza and notes from the tech operator, the nerves set in. My team, Elaion, would be competing for cash prizes against 12 other New Jersey universities in the second annual UPitchNJ contest.
As the next team entered the auditorium to go over their presentation, we went back to our demonstration table. In between conversations we practiced our deck from memory. We knew our parts; that wasn’t the issue. The scary part was facing the unknown. We always pitched to our classroom of peers, and here we were with several prestigious teams of strangers. Despite our smooth pitches in the car ride to Princeton, I was worried about clicking through the presentation at the wrong time.
All too soon, we gathered into the first three rows of the auditorium. Montclair State was fourth in the pitch order and I could feel my heart pounding as each speaker discussed Princeton’s entrepreneurship program.
I went through my parts of the presentation over and over before the first team started. I flipped back through my notes to confirm my numbers and specific details. Yet, at some point as the teams began, I realized I had to trust that over the past 14 weeks we had practiced enough to give a great pitch. We had to believe in one another. I stopped pitching in my head and took a deep breath, we can do this.
I listened to the judges’ feedback for each team. Some teams ran out of time, others didn’t clarify their product, and as always, the judges asked for validation.
I started to relax. I knew we would pitch within the time requirements, and that we had over 100 interviews validating our product. Having our professor, Jason Frasca, in the audience helped make this pitch feel like the one we do every week.
“I’m not using a microphone,” I told my teammates in between pitches. I worried that holding the clicker and a microphone would hinder my performance. (I’m Italian after all, I talk with my hands).
“Us either,” they agreed.
“Make sure you project,” Professor Frasca reminded us.
We transitioned to the front of the room as Professor Sharon Waters introduced our team. I don’t remember anything anyone said, just the feeling of the rubber clicker in my right hand, my shaky knees, and the loop of: project, breathe, project, breathe going through my mind.
“I almost had a panic attack, no lie,” my teammate Alexis Johnson, a senior Fine Arts major, recounted later, about waiting for our pitch to begin. “My heart was pounding. When we got up there, and you [Kristen] did your thing – it was fine. The intro eased my nerves.”
We didn’t turn around and crane our necks to look at the slides. We had the audience’s attention. We presented with the same flow that happens during successful MSU class pitches.
We trusted each other, and we succeeded.
After three minutes of questions with the judges, we took our seats and finished watching the presentations.
The first person I looked to was Professor Frasca. His face would tell it all. I knew he was going to tell me not to hide behind the podium next time, but to be honest, my legs were shaking so bad, I was glad it was there!
During the judges’ deliberation and subsequent award announcements, we went over the competition.
“Who do you think is going to take first?”
“I don’t know…How do we compare to the two groups that have been established for two years?”
“What about Pedul? She was the best speaker here.”
“Or The Buzz, I like the idea of a holistic/probiotic drink.”
“The signing school was great too. I love American Sign Language.”
We didn’t know who would win what prize, but we knew we wanted to win something – even if it was just the $100 Starbucks gift card for the Audience Choice Award!
“In my heart, I thought we would win third place. Not because of Karuda [the Montclair State team that won third prize in the 2016 UPitchNJ contest]. But because Pedul and Buzz were really strong. So I thought they were good competitors. I thought we would be the last slot because I thought we were good too,” Alexis explained.
As the judges filed out of the deliberation room, I thought we had a chance of winning some award. We were one, if not the only, team who had traction and sales. The only other teams who had anything were teams who were around for 2+ years. We’ve been around for three months.
“I thought we had a shot at winning, but I was also nervous that we weren’t going to win anything,” teammate Sophie Kunert, a sophomore Illustration major, added.
The judges announced the winner of the Starbucks card to The Buzz. The second award was “Best Early Stage Startup.”
That’s gotta be us, I thought.
Sure enough, the judge reads, “Elaion.”
“I was speechless,” Alexis recounted.
We went to the front of the room and took pictures with the giant check. I smiled and smiled and smiled so much I felt like the joker. This can’t be real, we won! All of our hard work, late hours, and revisions paid off.
“I was in shock. I didn’t feel anything in the moment. It was afterwards, after everything was processed,” Sophie remembered.
Other prizes went to Pedul at Rutgers ($1,500) for their college tuition funding platform; SignSchool affiliated with Princeton University ($1,000) for its online platform to learn American Sign Language; and Trend Pie at Seton Hall ($500) for its platform to encourage influencers to communicate with their social media followers. We lined across the front of the room and took pictures together.
“This competition was very exciting. The whole atmosphere is motivating!” Sophie reflected on the connections and networking we had throughout the day. People loved our idea and understood the product, even if they didn’t have tattoos themselves.
Being recognized for our work with Elaion was only part of our enjoyment. What was better, is that Montclair and the Feliciano Center get bragging rights too.
“I honestly don’t think we would’ve gotten this far without [Professor Frasca] each week,” Sophie said.
“I wholeheartedly agree,” Alexis added. “Frasca really pushed us. When I first started the class, it was too much for me. But slowly I started to like it, and I appreciate the hard work. I know at some point, in the real world, this will help me.”
Professor Frasca really prepared us for the competition. He put time in and outside of class to give us feedback and push our ideas.
You could see from our deck and presentation that he’s a great teacher, and that the entrepreneurship program at MSU prepares us for the real world of entrepreneurship.
Pitching and winning at Princeton University was a once in a lifetime experience.
Kristen Martinelli is a senior English major pursuing a Certificate of Entrepreneurship, and a member of team Elaion.