U of T Entrepreneurship Week kicked off on March 10 with a pitch competition — but with a twist. Entrepreneurs had to pitch their ideas through a performance, whether it be live painting, dance, or music at the inaugural Startup Slam.
Faculty of Kinesiology & Physical Education alumni Noureddin Chahrour and Leila Keshavjee judged the competition. Chahrour is the founder and president of Adrenalease Inc., and Keshavjee is founder and CEO of Happy Pops Inc.
This event was part of U of T’s Impact Centre’s larger efforts to engage students from underrepresented groups, including Black, Indigenous, and people of colour (BIPOC), women, and people from non-business backgrounds.
Many entrepreneurs fall through the cracks, unable to form meaningful relationships with investors because they often simply lack access. Startup Slam aimed to remedy this gap by teaching young entrepreneurs how to pitch, and potentially providing first-time entrepreneurs with some funding for their startup ideas.
“We really focus on trying to find many different types of ways to engage students to think about entrepreneurship,” event host Leo Mui explained, adding that “[pitching] is something that seems intimidating when everyone’s in their best suits in a room talking about financial jargon. So we want to tune that down as something creative that everyone can understand.”
Mui’s background in chemistry has informed his understanding of the need to find diverse voices in entrepreneurship, and the Impact Centre has played a huge part in his own transition from chemist to business owner.
During the event, the Impact Centre awarded a $1,000 grand prize to the winning pitch, True Sear Grill, a grilling accessory invented by siblings, Sylvia Gehring, a fourth-year business student at Ryerson University’s Ted Rogers School of Business, and Matthew Gehring, a fourth-year Rotman Commerce student.
Matthew played harmonica, setting the rhythm for the duo’s metrical pitch.
According to the pair, they have been pitching True Sear Grill for some time, and Matthew previously won top prize at the Impact Centre’s Techno entrepreneurship training program and Rotman Commerce’s Pitch Competition in 2019. Their technology is built to eliminate flareups on a barbeque grill.
Other participants’ ideas largely centred on expanding options for commercially available health care products.
Stephanie Tien, a Pharmacology and toxicology student, and Kristina Knox, a neuroscience graduate, pitched their idea for Arbre, a sunscreen for those with sensitive scalps, through a narrative sketch performance.
First-time pitchers Tien and Knox found Startup Slam’s creative emphasis welcoming. According to Knox, “just being [in] a really relaxed environment really helps.” Tien also added that the event was accessible for people, even those without the entrepreneurial background.
Maame E. De-Heer, a second-year master’s student at the Dalla Lana School of Public Health pitched her idea for The 3 C’s, an environmentally friendly disposable underwear-sanitary pad hybrid. The Startup Slam was De-Heer’s first time formally pitching her idea.
De-Heer hopes that her product will help provide women with convenient, environmentally-friendly menstrual products, something that she believes is lacking in the current market.
Minority and women-owned businesses often struggle to find capital, despite often playing significant roles in their communities. A number of factors contribute to the inability of BIPOC and women to access formal and informal training networks, secure startup capital, business loans, and ultimately, to tap into the entrepreneurial spirit.
Haman Mondouhi pitched his idea, Roots, which aims to create an app-based inventory for lullabies, nursery rhymes, and other culturally specific oral traditions that are becoming endangered as assimilation into North American culture grows.
Though he is experienced in the world of pitch competitions, Mondouhi expressed an appreciation for Startup Slam’s focus on creativity. “Honestly, I don’t think I would have expressed [this idea] in any other platform.”
“One of the most important things about the startup scene in Toronto is engaging audiences and people who wouldn’t think to get engaged in these dialogues.” Mondouhi continued, “despite the pressures you have for your family… and the career that you’ve been pursuing this whole time, think outside the box and feel free to reach out to new resources… because that changed my whole career path.”
Other ideas included Bo Sun’s Woodbio, an alcohol-free hand-sanitizer, and Jason Piao’s Sencha, a credit card that will help non-American users build credit while working in the US.
Of the event, Mui remarked, “I really feel that [entrepeneurs] must truly have a passion for what they’re doing, or else they wouldn’t be here today.”
Mui encouraged any students who might be interested in developing their startup ideas to get involved with the Impact Centre. “We hope to target students who are interested in doing something good for the world. And we help them find the right aids.”
Editor’s note (March 25, 12:27 pm): This article has been updated to correct True Sear Grill’s name.