“If at first you don’t succeed,” said the former top-four finalist in 2015 and the 2017 winner of the Stu Lieblein ’90 Pitch Contest Sam Solomon ’17, “Try, try and try again.”
Solomon was named the winner of the annual HWS entrepreneurial competition by a panel of alum judges on March 2. As the first-place winner, Solomon is the recipient of a $10,000 grant to help launch his idea for a Geneva business, Pizza Posto. The grant is funded by Stu Lieblein ’90, who has supported the contest winners since 2013 and will continue to do so over the next two years.
The other finalists of the competition were:
- Ato Bentsi-Enchill ’17 and Gyuri Dragomir ’17, who pitched “Deals en Route,” a coupon distribution app that uses geofencing to provide customers with coupons in confined spaces such as airports and colleges.
- Dominique DeRubeis ’18 and Angel Salas-España ’17, who proposed “Rabit Microfinance Initiative (RMFI),” an organization that would provide microloans to refugees in Jordan’s Zaatari camp with the option of financing according to Islamic banking standards.
- Maxim Zibitsker ’19, who pitched “Aqua Salutem Technologies,” a software system deployed in buoys that helps lifeguards identify drowning victims in real time.
Solomon’s business is a wood-fired pizza restaurant that will use locally sourced ingredients and serve Finger Lakes’ wine, beer and cider. His goal is to provide customers with a unique culinary experience that is representative of the abundant agriculture and booming wine industry in the region. His business will have a low-environmental impact with low-dependence on fossil fuels to transport goods, as well as a menu that minimizes food waste. Solomon says the business will add to downtown Geneva’s revitalization.
“My goal is to create a pizza experience that embodies the food culture and relaxed vibe of the Finger Lakes,” says the sociology major. Solomon studied abroad in Rome in 2016 and spent time with a master pizza chef from Naples. Over the course of the semester, he learned about the importance of fresh ingredients and the art of making pizza. His Pitch presentation illustrated how the millennial consumer is more likely to purchase fresh and local ingredients and how the growing Finger Lakes tourism industry would complement his business.
The judges for the evening included: Sabrina Horn ’83, managing partner and technology practice leader at Finn Partners; Peter A. Luchetti ’77, managing partner of Table Rock Capital and vice chair of the California Infrastructure Bank; Steven A. Neimeth ’90, former senior vice president and portfolio manager of SunAmerica Asset Management, LLC; and Angelo Santinelli P’18, senior executive at Dakin Management and adjunct lecturer at Babson College.
“Without a doubt, the judges are stunned by the quality of these presentations tonight. Your poise, your confidence, how you prepared, the quality of the content in your presentations, not to mention the business plans you presented are just excellent,” said Horn to all of the participants. Horn came to campus in the fall of 2016 to be the Centennial Center for Leadership’s (CCL) Leader in Residence.
Luchetti, who reflected on his experience at HWS during a question and answer period with the judges, said he “learned how to be a multi-disciplinary citizen of the world” through his HWS education that impacted the rest of his life. “This is the 40th year of my career, I’ve done four different jobs. I worked at Goldman Sachs, Bank of America, the Infrastructure Bank, I now have my own firm, yet there hasn’t been a day where that multi-disciplinary liberal arts consciousness – of experience, of culture and knowledge – hasn’t been integral to being successful in all those things,” he said.
Santinelli and Neimeth were both asked to describe the traits and qualities that exemplify entrepreneurship and success. Santinelli said that to him the mindset of an entrepreneur comes down to “empathy,” and the “propensity to act.” He also reflected on how all the ideas he has heard over the course of his career have required passion in order to become a reality. “There are a lot of great ideas out there, and I hear them all the time, and until you act, until you take a step to make that dream come true, nothing is going to happen.”
Neimeth, who was asked – if he could give any advice to his undergraduate self, what would it be – reflected on the importance of networking over the course of his career. “I think you create your own luck by networking like crazy. Know everything about interviewer, the company you are interviewing for, about the board of directors, even where they went to school. Create a conversation,” he said.
Several of the past winners of the Pitch competition were in attendance to give an update on their businesses during the intermission, including: last year’s winner Jeffrey Rizza ’16 MAT ’17, the 2015 winner Paige Pierce ’17, the 2014 winner and a finalist in this year’s competition Bentsi-Enchill, and the 2013 winner Andrew King ’14.
In his concluding remarks, President Mark D. Gearan reflected on the passing 56th anniversary of the Peace Corps, established on March 1, 1961 through an executive order signed by President John F. Kennedy and “the power of an idea.”
“This whole evening summarizes to me the ‘power of an idea,’” said Gearan, “and we heard four spectacular ideas, eloquently presented, in the non-profit and for-profit sectors.” In his remarks he thanked the staff in the office of CCL, the four participating judges, Lieblein and the alums who serve as mentors for students participating in the Pitch.
A video of the full event is available here.