Washtenaw Community College (WCC) is gearing up for its third annual Pitch@WCC competition, which provides an increasingly popular opportunity for early-stage entrepreneurs to win cash and gain business skills.
Kristin Gapske, director of the Entrepreneurship Center at WCC, says a pitch competition with an educational component was one of the first big projects she and others at the center focused on after the center opened in September 2014. WCC launched the first Pitch@WCC competition in April of 2016, attracting nine participants and filling all 50 slots for audience members.
The competition grew in 2017, attracting 15 pitches and about 120 audience members. This year, organizers expect the competition to grow again.
As part of the educational component, participants aren't just thrown in to sink or swim but rather learn many useful skills along the way.
"Applicants are supported throughout the process," Gapske says. "We teach them how to identify their target market, understand how to market to them, and all the other components that go into a successful pitch."
Participants in this year's competition must apply online by Feb. 9. Those who make it through the online process are required to attend additional meetings and workshops before the final event, set for 6 p.m. May 15.
Participants must come to an organizational meeting to get more details about the competition process and requirements. They must also attend three Entrepreneurial Center workshops, one about storytelling, one about crafting a pitch, and a third of the participant's choice. Finally, participants are required to come to a practice session to hone their pitches in front of the competition judges.
The entire process, including applying and attending workshops, is free for participants, and Gapske says an added bonus is that participants often get many networking opportunities.
"They get connected to each other, and you'll see the participants working with each other and rooting for each other," she says.
The competition has three tiers for entrepreneurs who are at different stages in the process: start, build, and grow. A top prize and a runner-up is named in each category, earning winners $1,000 in the "start category," $1,250 in the "build category," and $1,500 in the "grow" category. There's also a $500 prize for the audience choice winner.
Judges are open to many different types of businesses. Winners in the past have included a company producing a natural deodorizer, an apparel company, a cake maker, a massage therapist, and a custom tutoring business for Japanese expatriates.
Gapske says the pitch competition provides a smaller, more local opportunity for startups that aren't yet ready for larger and tougher business plan competitions. The competition also furthers the Entrepreneurship Center's overall mission in helping students.
"It aligns with what we're doing here at the center in terms of creating a co-curricular experience," Gapske says. "Students are getting skills with photography and graphic design and HVAC and construction, and some of them will be going out and needing to run a business. This gives them a chance to articulate what the business is and develop a succinct and effective pitch."
Sarah Rigg is a freelance writer and editor in Ypsilanti Township. You may reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Photo courtesy of WCC/Victoria Bennett.