Swimming with the Sharks!

Author: Christine Cox

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Notre Dame student entrepreneurs had the opportunity to face the most notorious “shark” on television when Shark Tank’s Kevin O’Leary visited the Mendoza College of Business on November 21. During his talk, sponsored by Mendoza College of Business and its Gigot Center for Entrepreneurship, O’Leary blasted one business idea, backed another and blessed a young man with a business-charity hybrid.

“Mr. Wonderful” drew more than a thousand visitors who filled the 350-seat Jordan Auditorium and spilled into five classrooms for a livestream. O’Leary’s visit highlighted the importance of entrepreneurship at Mendoza, where students regularly have the opportunity to hear from innovators with insights into the most current trends—from social impact to venture capitalism—and network with entrepreneurial ND alums.

During his nearly two-hour presentation, O’Leary told of his own entrepreneurial path, which started when he developed a software company in his basement with a $10,000 loan from his mother. He also presented his view of what it takes to be a successful entrepreneur, drawing on examples from Shark Tank (which he called a $12 million infomercial).

After O’Leary’s talk, two teams and one individual student from Notre Dame had three minutes each to pitch their business ideas to O’Leary, who seated himself on the stage directly in front of them. The would-be entrepreneurs had been chosen from among 30 teams of ND students vying for the chance to present.

Mr. Wonderful lived up to his reputation.

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The first pitch for a venture called Aerofit was quickly shot down by O'Leary. The students presented a concept for a chain of airport fitness facilities that would allow passengers and flight crews to exercise during layovers. The idea brought out the shark in O’Leary. “Do I take you behind the barn and shoot you now?” he asked.

The second pitch fared better. The two students sought $50,000 for 25 percent of their company, Sessa, a social investing app that would allow people to join together to buy stock inexpensively and easily. O’Leary offered the team $50,000 for 50 percent of the company. “I think I could drive a ton of traffic [to the app],” he said. Mr. Wonderful advised the students to get in touch with his people to solidify a deal.

The third pitch was for a social venture called The Red Bag, an existing business that sells bags for $5 loaded with water, food and supplies that people distribute to the homeless. O’Leary ultimately rejected the idea as "not a true business." “The lines are fuzzy,” he said. “I don’t think you’re going to get rich doing this, but when you die, you’re going to a good place.”

After his presentation, O’Leary met privately with student entrepreneurs, which provided them with a rare opportunity for some individual feedback. He listened to each idea, among them a vodka made with water from the maple tapping process, a football helmet that reduces concussions, customized dresses made in Uganda that help a social mission. O’Leary allowed as much time as needed to discuss each idea and encouraged most students to take their ideas to the next level.

Because, as he had told the crowd earlier, there’s no better life than an entrepreneur’s. “If you want to control your own destiny, you work for yourself,” he said. “Go for it. There’s nothing better than being able to wake up in the morning 10 years or 20 years from now and do whatever you like. It’s about freedom. That’s what matters.”

The Gigot Center for Entrepreneurship at Mendoza College of Business was founded in 1998 for the purpose of fostering innovation and infusing aspiring entrepreneurs with a sense of the possible. Through rigorous coursework, business plan competitions, extensive networking and mentorship, and hands-on learning experiences, the center supports Notre Dame MBA and other programs in providing students with the knowledge and skills vital to traditional and social entrepreneurship.