Swarthmore’s Center for Innovation and Leadership organizes a range of programs every year to promote students’ entrepreneurial and leadership skills. One such program is SwatTank, an innovation competition based on shows like Shark Tank. During the competition, groups of students develop a rough concept of a potential business or product and through research and CIL-organized programs before officially pitching it to the CIL. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the CIL is arranging a shortened version of the competition, Swat(tiny)Tank, that will begin on March 22.
The CIL created SwatTank, intending to provide a pathway for students to learn how to create a business as well as a framework to understand the nuance of entrepreneurship. A core element of the competition is to complete a business model that encourages students to think about their business value propositions. One example of a SwatTank business is last year’s winner, Matchband. Formed by Swarthmore students Betsy Cohen ’20 and Drew McMahan ’22, this app interface brings musicians, music-goers, and venues together on a single platform. Their motto is “Bringing Local Music to Local People.” Katie Clark, the CIL’s director, emphasized that SwatTank should help students learn to recognize a community’s needs and create a product that responds to those needs effectively.
“Our hope is not necessarily that the idea [students] come up with for SwatTank is a million-dollar idea that turns into something massive, but [the experience of participating in SwatTank] helps them understand how to do it over and over again throughout their lives,” Clark said.
Due to the circumstances of this remote semester, the CIL pared down the business model component of the competition and is revolving Swat(tiny)Tank around the pitch. Instead of a ten-page business report with extensive data analysis and research, Swat(tiny)Tank requires a shorter and less detailed report. Moreover, the CIL decided not to set up SwatTank competitors this year with an alumni mentor due to the amount of time it takes to develop a meaningful mentor-mentee relationship. Cutting these aspects of the competition down was not an easy decision for the CIL, as they spent the past year planning a distilled version of SwatTank.
“We spent a lot of time over the break asking ourselves what it means for students to be in four classes in the spring … and we were concerned about students’ capacity to do an extra project on top of those four classes. However, we were still really interested in figuring out a way to work on the most central, foundational pieces of SwatTank. And we think that those are public speaking, learning how to give a pitch that really speaks to the audience that tells the story of your idea, and to work in a team.” Clark said.
Another aspect of the competition that Swat(tiny)Tank has maintained is the supplemental workshops that help students with their pitch. These workshops include the Customer Discovery Challenge, an opportunity to interview potential customers, an interactive workshop with Sedinam Worlanyo ’17, a past SwatTank winner, and a workshop with Aesop Academy.
Overall, the past two remote semesters have not deterred the CIL from innovating and creating opportunities for Swarthmore students. This year, they have hosted a myriad of programs, including the Tri-Co Hackathon and Cake Connections. Additionally, the CIL plans to host a Senior Showcase, develop a leadership program for student-athletes, and introduce the Spring Staycation, a series of games and activities for on-campus students during spring break. According to Carl Sveen, assistant director of the CIL, this remote experience is an excellent opportunity for the CIL to experiment and get feedback from students.
“We are big on students telling us what is happening. You know, our students are the ones that are doing it, and we can’t pretend to create a program that students don’t want to do,” said Sveen.
An example of this ethos is CIL’s close collaboration with its interns in coming up with new activities. Mwangangi Kalii ’23 is one of the three Stanford Innovation Fellows the CIL selected to undergo special leadership and innovation training with Stanford University last semester. This spring, Kalii is helping the CIL design courses and events for the college community, including the Staycation. According to Kalii, one of the great things about the CIL is how communicative they are with the student body.
“The CIL staff are the most fun bosses and supervisors I’ve ever had. They just relate to us. They are down to earth and can imagine what twenty- or eighteen-year-olds would do. Their [attitude] has meant a lot to most of us … and it helps us tap into our creative juices,” Kalii said. He is also optimistic about his experiences interning for the CIL during the remote semester.
“You will be surprised at how adaptable and malleable people have been since [the beginning of the pandemic]. I feel like the quality of our work has improved and we have been able to use platforms that we couldn’t have known about before … Although we were worried in the start, we’ve been able to really get things going and everything is going on as well as it would have in-person if not better,” Kalii said.
The CIL also emphasized the various funding that they are continuing to offer students. The Design and Development Fund is still offered to students who want to attend an event or garner resources related to their own personal development goals and align with the CIL’s values.
To get involved with the CIL, students can subscribe to their newsletter and participate in Reflections From the Unknown, a project that encourages students to reflect on their experiences creatively.
Featured image courtesy of Laurence Kesterson for The Phoenix.