The Charger Blog

University’s Smerd Pitch Competition Inspires Innovation and Entrepreneurship

The competition was an exciting way for entrepreneurial students of all disciplines to problem-solve, build their skills, and gain hands-on experience that they will draw from during their time as Chargers and beyond.

November 9, 2023

By Renee Chmiel, Office of Marketing and Communications

“Creschendo” and “Aquahops” captured first and second place in the Smerd Pitch Competition, respectively.
“Creschendo” and “Aquahops” captured first and second place in the Smerd Pitch Competition, respectively.

Tomiloba Shokunbi ’25 M.S. thinks of himself as a disrupter. He’s also a dreamer who also acknowledges the importance of others’ dreams – including artists who dream of making an impact with their music. That inspired him to dream up a new app to support them. He recently shared his idea with the University community.

Shokunbi pitched his app, Creschendo FX, as part of the University’s Smerd Pitch Competition. He designed it to enable artists to get involved in the music industry in new ways by expanding their access to capital.

The app would check artists’ legitimacy and standing in the industry, assigning them stock values. Fans could then buy stock in artists they support. It would give artists access to creative capital while offering investors the opportunity to be a part of supporting them.

“Many artists are more than talented and more than driven, but they don’t find success,” explained Shokunbi, a candidate in the University’s graduate program in finance and financial analytics. “I like to think of myself as a leader and, more importantly, a servant of the people. Creschendo is an avenue for potential.”

‘Practical lessons and potential opportunities’

As he presented his app to his fellow Chargers, Shokunbi showed images of what it would look like. He also received feedback from a panel of judges, who praised his energy.

Shokunbi captured first place in the competition, and he was also named the “crowd favorite.” The team that pitched an app called Aquahops captured second place. Their presentations were among the five that were part of the final pitch competition, which was open to entrepreneurial-minded undergraduate and graduate students of all majors and programs of study. Thomas Portnoy ’25 was also among the presenters.

Thomas Portnoy ’25
Thomas Portnoy ’25 pitches his travel app.

“Participating in the Smerd Pitch Competition was an invaluable experience,” said Portnoy, a finance major with minors in marketing and professional sales. “It not only honed my ability to communicate complex ideas I had, but it also provided a platform to engage with and learn from a diverse array of entrepreneurial talents.”

It was Portnoy’s experience studying abroad at the University’s campus in Prato, Italy, that inspired his app, which endeavors to provide “nonstop” simplicity in travel planning. Geared toward college students, the app would enhance transparency and serve as a one-stop-shop for students who were studying abroad or planning an adventure – especially those who were new to travel. Portnoy says being a part of the competition expanded his own world.

“The feedback from judges and the interaction with fellow innovators have been profoundly insightful, offering practical lessons and potential opportunities that will undoubtedly shape my approach to business strategy and innovation in my future career,” he said. “While I did not win, my journey to the finals was a testament to the viability of my idea and the hard work that I have put in. This platform has been instrumental in deepening my understanding of venture capitalism and the startup ecosystem, equipping me with the knowledge and confidence to navigate the startup path after graduation.”

‘Students are becoming more entrepreneurial’

That’s exactly what the competition – the culminating event of a multi-week program – was designed to offer students. As part of the competition, students identify a problem, develop a solution and a pitch, then compete to earn awards that help them launch their innovative ideas. As part of the final competition, which is the Entrepreneurship Club’s signature event, they pitch their ideas to a panel of judges, honing their public speaking skills and developing their entrepreneurial mindset.

Vasiliki Kosmidou, Ph.D., the University’s Smerd Family Professor in Innovation and Entrepreneurship, oversaw the event. Her professorship and the event are supported by the generosity of Peter Smerd '82 MBA and Susan Smerd. Dr. Kosmidou appreciated how hard the students worked throughout the program, including during a series of five workshops that prepared them for the competition. She was impressed by the students’ dedication to learning and growing.

Kiana White '23, '24 M.S.
Kiana White '23, '24 M.S. delivers her pitch to the panel of judges.

“It feels great to see that our program is continually improving, and that faculty and students show up every year at the pitch night to support our student entrepreneurs,” she said. “I am looking forward to seeing the Smerd Pitch Competition evolve and become even more successful, so that it can continue providing valuable experiences and meaningful opportunities to our students.”

This competition included more than 100 registered participants, as well as more than 30 teams that included solo participants as well as multiple students. Participants represented all five of the University’s academic colleges and schools. While more than 80 percent of them were graduate students, Dr. Kosmidou was excited to see more than a dozen undergraduates get involved in this year’s program.

“It is wonderful to see that our students are becoming more entrepreneurial even at the start of their college years,” she said.

‘I am so grateful for this opportunity’

One of those students, Nessy Cherazard ’27, developed and pitched BIMBE (Big Ideas Meet Big Entrepreneurs). Her own big idea was an app that would enable recent high school grads who did not pursue college to enter the workforce and build their expertise and skills. The subscription app would be locally based and enable individuals to gain experience without having to travel far.

Nessy Cherazard ’27.
Nessy Cherazard ’27.

“I was a one-person team, and I learned to do my research,” explains Cherazard, a political science major. “I am so grateful for this experience. I also learned about public speaking and about reading my audience. It was exciting to have the opportunity to be in this space and to present my idea.”

For Shokunbi, who pitched Creschendo, the competition was an incredible way to learn about research and to craft a business pitch. He hopes his fellow Chargers will take the opportunity to get involved in next year’s pitch competition.

“I hope to encourage students to put themselves out there,” he said. “You only fail when you give up. I am so grateful for this opportunity.”