Students Compete (and Win Cash) in Inaugural Shark Tank-like Pitch Competition

Photos by Kelly Marsh

A beautifully crafted board game for children that reimagines the classic strategy game Mancala. An app that helps people with common interests find each other and meet up—in person or virtually—to share those interests. A blueprint for college students wishing to launch their own in-dorm nail salons.

A tasty, high-protein ice cream bar for athletes or people seeking dessert alternatives with better nutritional value. An app that enables friends to trade restaurant reviews. Another app that helps users to get up in the morning. And finally, a uniquely designed freshwater fishing rod that addresses many of the design flaws found in others on the market.

Three people sitting in chairs, clapping, looking at a fourth standing person in front of them who appears to be speaking or performing.
Lissus Murataj ’27 reacts with surprise as he’s declared the winner of Vassar’s first Entrepreneur Pitch Competition.

Those were the products presented to judges at Vassar’s first-ever Entrepreneur Pitch Competition, held on April 26 in the College Center and hosted by the Vassar Innovation and Entrepreneurship (VIE) Program. The top prize of $2,500 was awarded to Lissus Murataj ’27 for his “RinRod” fishing pole. Cher Mei ’26’s “Cher Studio” beauty salon won the $1,000 second-place prize, and the “Lunch Box” restaurant review app designed by Tanish Pradhan Wong Ah Sui ’26 received the $500 third prize.

A person gives a presentation at the front of the room. Behind the person is a projected slide that reads “Table of Contents: Why Nails?; Introduction; Current Business; Future Plans”. Closest to the viewer are two people sitting in chairs, seen from the back.
Cher Mei ’26 makes her pitch for a business plan for her on-campus nail salon. The judges—and spectators—loved it.

A diverse panel of judges included Christopher Deutsch ’97, founder of Lofty Ventures, a company that has been investing in start-ups for the past 25 years; Gene C. Waddy P’27, an entrepreneur and owner of a minority business that provides payroll and staffing services to major corporations; Jannette Swanson, Director of External Engagement in Vassar’s Office of Career Education; Wesley Dixon, Deputy to the President and Secretary of the Board of Trustees; and Assistant Professor of Physics Juan Merlo-Ramírez.

A conference room full of people. Five people in the foreground are sitting at a wide table with a black tablecloth, on which are drinks and papers.
Pitch Competition judges (left to right) Wesley Dixon, Christopher Deutsch ’97, Jannette Swanson, Juan Merlo-Ramirez, and Gene C. Waddy P’27 photograph a contestant during a pitch.

The competition had a modified “Shark Tank” format: Each participant (or, in the case of the friendship app, a two-person team) was given 10 minutes to make a pitch, then fielded questions and comments from the four judges. In addition, those who attended the event were given stacks of fake cash which they “invested” in projects they liked after chatting with the participants during a poster session. Cher Mei’s project attracted the most “cash,” making her concept the audience choice for the “Most Invested” award.

Murataj drew high praise from judges and other alum mentors for “RinRod.” During his presentation, he told the judges he had been an avid fisherman, frequenting numerous lakes, rivers, and streams near his home in New York City since early childhood. Over that time, he had used many different kinds of rods and reels, all of which had flaws.

By the time he was in high school, Murataj said, he had begun to design a mechanism for feeding the line from the reel through the hollow fiberglass rod that made it much less likely to become tangled. He designed the two-meter collapsible rod so that all segments could be easily replaced if they became damaged. Murataj prototyped the modular rod in Vassar’s Innovation Lab and secured a patent for his design earlier this year. “Everything about this product addresses the problems I had fishing as a kid,” he told the judges.

Ellen Rudnick ’72, Senior Advisor on Entrepreneurship at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business, provided the cash prizes for the event and watched it on a Zoom recording. She said she was truly impressed with Murataj’s pitch. “In this format, in addition to having a great product, you have to be able to tell your story in order to raise money, and he did a great job doing that,” Rudnick said.

A large poster-sized check on a wooden table, with signup forms near it. Printed on the check is the text “2024 Entrepreneur Pitch Competition. First Place, Two Thousand Five Hundred Dollars. A Gift From Ellen Rudnick ’72”.
Prize money from the competition was provided by Ellen Rudnick ’72, Senior Advisor on Entrepreneurship at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business.

Murataj said he planned to use the money Rudnick had provided to hire Vassar film majors to help him create videos and other promotion materials, and he said Deutsch had offered to help him make connections with potential manufacturers. He added that he chose to attend Vassar when he learned about its Innovation and Entrepreneurship Program. “I couldn’t have gotten this far without the help and advice I’ve received from mentors and from working in the Innovation Lab,” he said.

Mei said she would use her $1,000 prize to continue to develop a curriculum to help others launch a business like hers. “I want to teach others how to do what I do,” she said. “Hearing Chris Deutsch tell me how impressed he was with my idea was really validating, and I will take advantage of the resources in the Innovation Lab to pursue this plan.”

“All of the entrepreneurs in the competition are participants in the Vassar Innovation and Entrepreneurship Program,” said Jean Tagliamonte, Assistant Vice President for Planning and Engagement, who oversees the program team. “Before the VIE program was created, we would learn about students trying to launch ventures and have no way to help them. It’s truly astounding to see how far they’ve come and to know that we were able to help them get there.”

Julián Aguilar, an Administrative Fellow and member of the VIE Program Support team, provided one-on-one guidance to the entrepreneurs as they prepared their business plans and pitches for the competition.

Vivek Mahapatra ’05, who has been mentoring students in the program since the event was announced, said the Pitch Competition was all he had hoped it would be. “It was exciting and inspiring to witness such a unique set of ideas, and I hope we’ve created a space at Vassar to continue this effort,” Mahapatra said.

One of the organizers of the event, VIE Program Administrator Erin McHugh, said the work of the Innovation and Entrepreneurship Program could not be accomplished without the support of alums like Deutsch, Mahapatra, and Rudnick. “We cannot thank our alums enough for not only their dedication through time, but their overwhelming support for our program and its future ventures. We are looking forward to giving our students a fruitful curriculum in years to come and are excited to host many more alum events, pitch competitions, and beyond in the future.”

Learn more about the Vassar Innovation and Entrepreneurship Program.

May 14, 2024