Reflections on Judging the Wharton Business Plan Competition Venture Finals

By Rich Riley, Wharton Undergrad 1996, CEO of Shazam

Just last week, on Wednesday April 24, I had the privilege of being a judge at the Wharton Business Plan Competition Venture Finals.

As I was told by the other judges, The Wharton Business Plan Competition continues to grow and plans keep getting more sophisticated.  This academic year more than 300 plans were initially submitted and I imagine the thousands of hours invested by some of our best and brightest over the course of the competition.  After the three prior rounds, and the contributions of more than 200 participating judges, last Wednesday we were down to the Great Eight Finalist teams.

The day starts for us with a judge’s lunch, which for me is just yet another ‘Wharton Moment’ where you sit in awe of the people you are talking to, the facility you are sitting in and the topics you are discussing.  Richard Perlman (Wharton Undergrad 1968), Maxine Gowen (Wharton MBA 2002) and David Cohen (Parent to Wharton Undergrads 2014 and 2016) were my fellow judges and the kinds of accomplished entrepreneurs whose bios are amazing. There is nothing like sitting with them and hearing them tell their stories.  This year, Richard and Ellen Perlman took the competition to the next level by endowing the Competition’s Perlman Grand Prize so that $30,000 will be awarded to the winning plan each year, forever.

After lunch it was time for the competition.  We had read the plans and had our questions ready.  Each team had 10 minutes to present followed by a Q&A with the judges.  The quality of the plans was exceptional, spanning ventures from healthcare to the automotive to the fashion sector.  The plans were so good and so well thought through that it was very challenging selecting the winners.

After the presentations, the judges met and discussed the merits of each plan.  They were all so good, but we had to pick a first, second and third place winner.  While we each had our own opinions, we were able to converge relatively easily on the winners. 

During our deliberations, the audience was watching the Great Eight Finalists deliver their two minute elevator pitches as they competed for the Michelson People’s Choice Award of $3000. This award is the only one during the Venture Finals that’s driven by audience voting.

Once our deliberations were completed, the awards were presented.

The Perlman Grand Prize was awarded to Zenkars – which helps consumers buy used cars online directly from fleet sales. We liked that it is innovative solution to the real problem of buying used cars–currently a generally unpleasant and inefficient experience. Their exceptional presentation showed very clear thinking around how to solve this problem and launch this business. We were very impressed with the team.

The second prize went to MacuLens – They are using a proprietary coating for glasses to reduce glare for night driving. We liked the merits of the proprietary technology to solve this real and growing problem.  We also appreciated the potential competitive advantage. The team had a very scrappy go to market plan and, if anything, had underestimated their potential sales – which is a rare thing to see!  They also took home the Michelson People’s Choice Award. 

The third prize went to Top Trender –They are using smart phone games to help retailers understand consumer demand for fashion.  We liked that this was leveraging two powerful trends: the adoption of smart phones and the use of gamification to provide insights to fashion brands. This would replace the typical data currently gathered by most retailers through tactics like focus groups. This was a very scalable business and an extremely well written business plan.

I’m always so impressed at how world class Wharton is overall and how strong it has become in Entrepreneurship.  It just keeps getting better and better.


Rich RileyBio: Rich Riley (@rriley17) is CEO of Shazam with more than 17 years of experience as an entrepreneur and leading Internet executive. Most recently, Rich was EVP Americas for Yahoo! where he was responsible for billions of dollars of revenue and managed a team of thousands, overseeing sales, account management, ad operations, B2B marketing, research and business development across the US, Canada and LatAm. Prior to that, Rich held a variety of roles including MD & SVP of the EMEA Region, SVP of the Small & Medium Business Division as well as corporate and business development roles.