A hush fell over the room as the first student walked to the front.
Filled with students, faculty and professionals, all eyes were on him as he had less than one minute to sell himself—showing his strengths, experience and aspirations to a panel of judges set up as would-be-hiring managers.
It’s high pressure, but the final round of the Elevator Pitch competition included the students who received the highest scores from an earlier round of the competition that started with nearly 500 students from the College of Business.
“From all the research I’ve done, we have the nation’s largest singular Elevator Pitch competition in terms of the number of students who participate,” said Dr. Renée Fontenot, professor of marketing and coordinator of the bi-annual competition.
“We have about 497 student participating this time in the initial round from the College of Business. That’s roughly 30 percent of all declared majors,” she said.
The 20 students who made it to the final round showed they have both poise and professionalism—helping them get noticed by business leaders. By making it to the final round, students receive a minimum of $50. The top five make the “big money,” Fontenot says, with first place winner Daniella Vivas receiving a $500 cash prize.
“This was my first time competing in the Elevator Pitch. It was a great experience that forced me to be pushed out of my comfort zone, and I am better for it,” said the mass communication major with a minor in marketing. “Participating in this competition will help boost my confidence the next time I am speaking with industry professionals.”
The second place winner Dane Wiggins, a junior management major, won $400. Sophomore management major Gabriella Sposato placed third and won $300. The fourth place winner was senior marketing major Lauren Holtakers, who won $200. Fifth place was sophomore marketing major Holley Leech winning $100.
“GEICO became the corporate sponsor five years ago,” Fontenot said. “Though the first round is judged by business professionals and recruiters from a variety of companies, the final round is exclusively judged by GEICO representatives. GEICO sends 10 judges for the final competition that includes a networking luncheon. With 20 competitors, each student is seated next to a GEICO representative giving them meaningful exposure after the pitches have been made.”
An elevator pitch gives a quick synopsis of your background and experience. The rational — it’s something you should be able to present during a brief elevator ride. When it’s done right, the short speech can help introduce you in a compelling way to business connections.
In the J. Whitney Bunting College of Business, several courses require participation in the competition. Although it’s technically a class assignment, students see the value of it outside the classroom setting.
Recent graduate Ben Wynett, ’19, placed among the top five winners last year, and was able to not only use the skills he built to get a job, but also win a similar contest at his new company.
“In our sales training, we had an Elevator Pitch competition, so that was a direct correlation where I had been groomed and knew the right talking points. I was aware of the structure of introducing yourself, going into content and being able to use actionable examples for each one of your points,” said Wynett, who works at NCR Corporation in Atlanta. “There were three winners for each vertical unit for my company. I was one of three winners for the retail division.”
The marketing major credits the education he received at Georgia College and his hard work with the career trajectory he’s on.
“The Elevator Pitch was a great for me and gave me an advantage over a lot of my colleagues because of the overall experience I got at Georgia College,” he said. “It really put me in a good spot, and it led me to actually getting a promotion already. Truthfully with everything in college, I just tried to do the best I could, and the same in my career.”
For the success of the competition, it takes both exceptional students and around 100 volunteer judges for both rounds. Many businesses request months in advance to have staff serve as judges in the first round. They use it as a way to not only keep in tune with college students, but also as a way to reach out to potential talent.
“I love what the College of Business is doing,” said Tom Glover, CEO of Cogentes and longtime judge. “Soft skills are something that I feel like are missing for many college kids, and when they told me about the Elevator Pitch competition, I thought this is great to help the kids learn how to talk to businesses leaders and to sell themselves.”
As a local business owner, Glover uses his time as a judge to not only connect with students but also with potential employees.
“I’ve hired students for internships and jobs,” he said. “I don’t do the Elevator Pitch just to connect with students for internships, but it is nice that when I’m in there I can see those students who are really remarkable. It’s a way to see them in a little different light than at a career fair.”
During the first round of the competition, one of the biggest accomplishments for students, aside from moving on to the next round, is getting a business card from one of their judges. It’s a not-so-subtle hint that the company is interested in the student’s skills set.
December 2019 graduate Danni Dunagan received one of those coveted cards in the first round.
“Two years ago I was terrified at the competition, but my courses prepared me. I’ve honed my speaking abilities and am able to present and talk with confidence,” she said.
“I talked about my interest in a sales position and got a card from one of the judges. I’m going to talk more with him at the Career Fair,” said Dunagan.
Fontenot strategically plans the first round of the competition to coincide with the bi-annual Career Fair held on campus. It’s good for business leaders who serve as judges as well as the students who garner interest from employers.
“If our judges see someone they like, they are free to either tell me or give them a business card and say see me at the Career Fair,” said Fontenot. “The follow up is on the students.”
She’s pulled together the competition for nearly 10 years working with businesses to get them involved as well as fellow faculty to encourage students to participate.
“We’ve increased our understanding in the need to create graduates that businesses want. The soft skills are things that are lacking, and I think employers are looking more for them,” she said.
A labor of love, it makes it worthwhile when she sees the students connecting the value added from the experience to their life outside the walls of the classrooms.
The Elevator Pitch is one way the College of Business tailors its programs to allow students to stand out in the crowded business market. Although it’s a lot of pressure, students and graduates agree it helped set them up for future success.