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Pitch competition rewards next generation of innovators.

Jayvon Fairman-Davis is living his dream: teaching kids chess as a full-time occupation. He has a bunch of sharks to thank for it. Davis, CEO and founder of the nonprofit Chess Express Kids, was the winner of the ninth Swim with the Sharks business pitch competition hosted by the New Castle County Chamber of Commerce’s Emerging Enterprise Center (EEC).

Fairman-Davis’ pitch that he was teaching chess but “selling” essential life skills of patience, confidence, calculation and critical thinking, wrapped in a scalable business plan, moved him to the front of the pack.

“He had a clear vision,” says Alysse Bortolotto, director of economic development and business incubation for the EEC.

Alysse Bortolotto

Preparing for the Shark Tank-style competition helped Fairman-Davis enhance his business and presentation skills, he says. To get ready, he record-ed his pitch and played it over and over again.

His practice showed, says Bortolotto. Fairman-Davis won the People’s Choice Award, which pushed him into the final four.

The Swim with the Sharks competition is open to businesses younger than five years old and located within the New Castle County Chamber of Commerce (NCCCC) service area.It was founded by the EEC, a nonprofit business incubator dedicated to ensuring the success of local entrepreneurs. The EEC mission is simply to help build sustainable businesses.

Delaware is a great place to work, but entrepreneurs starting a business still need a hand up, says Charuni Patibanda, economic development director for New Castle County and one of the sponsors of the competition. Sharks is an innovative way to help startup businesses to work on their plans. More than even the prize money, the competition comes with a wealth of experience and people willing to help.

“The pitch competition helps the startup companies prepare for meetings with prospective investors, banks, suppliers, partners, etc. by preparing for the TV-style spotlight with on-the-spot shotgun interviews. They really have to know what they are doing and why it will be successful,”says Chris L. Kenny, one of the judges for the final round in 2021.

The judging rubric included items like, “Is the business plan viable?” and “How will this business impact Delaware?”

The winner receives $10,000 in prize money, a one-year membership in the EEC’s Virtual Incubator Program that is worth $4,600, a membership in the NCCCC, advertising and marketing opportunities worth $1,400, as well as membership to digital maker spaces and the World Trade Center of Delaware, plus company formation materials. Finalists get the chamber membership and their professional promotional pitch clip.

But no one walks away empty-handed.

“The judges really care,” says Bortolotto. All the judges at each level give feedback for the contestants.

Sleeping Bird Coffee of Wilmington was a two-time finalist in the pitch competition. Going through and getting the notes from the judges really helped the owners Zach DeLong and Leigh Ann Tona hone their business plan, says Tona. “It’s a nice way to self-reflect on your business,” she says.

And the finalists also get exposure. More than 3,000 people watched the final competition that was streamed live on the NCCCC channel.

One of the organizers of the competition became a regular customer, says Tona.

For Fairman-Davis, the competition made him more confident about reaching out to new investors and the $10,000 allowed him to hire more teachers, which meant he could expand his program to ramp up the nonprofit’s presence and serve more students.

“It literally gave us exactly what we needed,” says Fairman-Davis.

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