A Reflection on the SXSW MBA Pitch Competition

The energy from my team is exultant. They’ve just announced the winners for the 3rd Annual MBA Pitch Competition at SXSW Interactive – and we, Riviter, took first place! One of the judges, an Entrepreneur in Residence at the University of Texas, approaches and asks which business school we’re from. “Chicago Booth,” one of us replies. “Oh,” he says, grinning. “I should’ve guessed. That’s where all of the entrepreneurs I meet are from these days.”

That makes me proud – because, slight allowance for hyperbole aside, he’s right.

Way back in 2012, I came to Chicago for my admissions interview. My former coworker, Dave, was at Booth and launching a start-up. He knew I was interested in entrepreneurship, so the night before my interview he took me to SeedCon 2012, an annual conference hosted by the Entrepreneurship and Venture Capital Club. I arrived just in time to hear the opening keynote from the founder of Alinea, Next, and basically all of the other top restaurants in Chicago. He talked excitedly about his work with Booth students and their gumption and resourcefulness in convincing him to invest in their ventures. After the speech, Dave introduced me to his co-founders and other entrepreneurs in his class. I came away extremely impressed by their ventures, the conference, and the support Booth, the Polsky Center, and the faculty were providing. Of all the MBA programs I’d visited, this was the most advanced, complete innovation incubator I’d seen.

Now I’m here, and not only has that impression been validated – the Booth entrepreneurship program has grown exponentially, and I’m convinced it’s the best in the country.

I had started and sold a company in Washington, DC before starting my dual degree programs. During my first masters at Harvard, I incubated an ed-tech start-up at the Harvard i-Lab and realized I wanted to take a break as a founder. However, I still wanted to be involved in the start-up landscape.

Booth made that so easy. There are start-ups everywhere! To give you a sense of the landscape: more than 90 Booth-founded ventures applied to the top-ranked Edward L. Kaplan New Venture Challenge this year. I’m a techie, and I’ve been able to work with three amazing tech ventures as well as two venture capital funds and three private equity firms on tech investing projects on both coasts since coming to Booth.

This year, I’ve really focused on working with Riviter. Riviter is the brainchild of Andi. Andi and I met at a wine bar in River North during our Booth Orientation. She was there meeting with group of entrepreneurially-minded first years who had started a Facebook group to coordinate start-up resources and recruiting. I was there with another group focused on drinking wine. We started chatting and the rest is history.

The idea is cool: Riviter was originally conceived as a “Shazam for clothing” – allowing consumers to take a picture of a person whose jacket they liked and find it online. Today, Riviter has grown into a fully functional B2B image recognition company that allows online and mobile retailers to read shoppers’ minds based on social media pins, likes, and tags.

Andi has helmed Riviter through some amazing achievements: one of the top three finalists in SeedCon 2014’s Napkin Pitch Competition, one of 12 companies selected from 900+ applicants for the Plug and Play StartUp Camp accelerator in Silicon Valley over Summer 2015, one of 15 companies selected from across the University of Chicago campus for the National Science Foundation’s Innovation Corps Accelerator at the Chicago Innovation Exchange, one of 30 teams participating in the Kaplan New Venture Challenge this year, and – most recently – the winner of the 2016 SXSW MBA Pitch competition, taking top prize over 12 very impressive semi-finalists from Babson, McCombs, Tuck, HBS, Ross, Wharton, MIT, and Fuqua.

What makes Booth so ripe for entrepreneurship? I see four key advantages: 1) the faculty, 2) the classes, 3) the resources, and 4) the talent and dedication of the student body.

The Booth entrepreneurship faculty is beyond compare. Waverly Deutsch, Scott Meadow, Steve Kaplan, Craig Wortmann, James Schrager – the list goes on and on. These professors are not only top investors, advisors, and practitioners in their fields, they are also available at a moment’s notice to support, critique, and mentor. The week before SXSW, Waverly Deutsch sat down with our team and, to put it bluntly, ripped our pitch deck to shreds. Then she took out a pen and paper and helped us build a new, streamlined, vastly improved storyboard. We got equal support from Steve Kaplan. This hands-on involvement is a major factor in why there are over 140 Booth-launched companies out there crushing it.

The second reason is the curriculum. Booth students have no required classes. I’ll repeat: NO CORE CURRICULUM. This means we can jump immediately into the classes that will help us grow as entrepreneurs, venture capitalists, or private equity investors. In typical Booth fashion, these classes are rarely “case-based” – they’re hands-on experiential learning in start-up skills (Commercializing Innovation, Entrepreneurial Selling, Building the New Venture, New Venture Strategy, etc.), technical skills like coding, design and analytics (Application Development, Big Data, Machine Learning, User Design, etc.), and operational skills (Pricing Strategies, Negotiations, Supply Chain, and Data Driven Marketing).

And, of course, because of our voracity for all things entrepreneurship, the number of these classes grows every year. One of the latest and greatest is Entrepreneurship through Acquisition – a class taught by Mark Agnew, CEO of Lou Malnati’s, frequently cited as the favorite class of participants’ Booth experience.

Third are the resources here. The Polsky Center provides amazing programming and support including Entrepreneurs-in-Residence, New Venture Challenge, the student-run Venture Capital Investment Fund, the Private Equity and Venture Capital Lab class that gives students real internships at PE and VC firms, Hyde Park Angels student internships, summer accelerators for Booth start-ups, summer fellowships for students who want to intern at start-ups – it goes on and on. Then there are also the Chicago Innovation Exchange, frequent interactions with 1871, and many more.

This leads me to number four. Students at Booth are pretty darn involved – I wouldn’t come to Booth if you’re looking for that mythical “two-year MBA vacation” – and the student entrepreneurs here are some of the most passionate. They run multiple conferences a year (SeedCon, Private Equity Conference), coordinate start-up and investing treks in NYC, Chicago, and California, run pitch and business plan competitions all over the country, plan recruiting support for those interviewing for PE and VC, coordinate teaching and hacking sessions for iOS, Android, back-end and front-end development, and volunteer time, skills, and advice for their fellow students’ start-ups. In fact, I’ll take a quick minute just to digitally thank Andi, Makeda, Vanessa, Shawn, Alyssa, Arno, Vinh, Kevin, Lauren, Chris, Pratyush, and most especially, my mentor Jake for being so incredibly helpful to me personally.

When it comes down to it – you guys are the reason why “Booth is where all the entrepreneurs are coming from these days.”

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