GWU's exercise in ground-floor entrepreneurship

In an elevator at GWU, Tim Foley, left, presents his business idea to the judges and a timekeeper, right.
In an elevator at GWU, Tim Foley, left, presents his business idea to the judges and a timekeeper, right. (Emma Brown/the Washington Post)
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By Emma Brown
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, November 15, 2009

Tim Foley pulled out a glossy black brochure and started talking fast. He had three minutes to sell his idea for a social networking Web site for car lovers. That's all he needed.

"This is a once in a lifetime idea," said Arlington Butler, a small-business owner and George Washington University alumnus who returned to campus to judge Saturday's "Pitch George" competition. He saw Facebook-esque potential in Foley's idea.

More than 60 budding business owners -- all students at the school -- vied for $9,000 in seed money for their proposed ventures. The finalists' pitches were all delivered in the tight confines of elevators parked on the sixth floor of Duques Hall, a venue chosen in homage to the idea that a good entrepreneur should be able to hook an investor in the time it takes to ride a few floors in an elevator.

Students' ideas included a Web site for buying and selling used textbooks and a personal-history service that would interview elderly people and their families and produce hardbound biographies or video documentaries to pass down through the generations.

Some GWU students have left school to pursue their business ideas. Among them is Thysson Williams, one of Saturday's judges, who left George Washington in 2008 to work full time on Dorm Room Decorators. The online company takes orders for whatever a college freshman needs and delivers it to campus.

Technically a junior, he's planning to return to school to earn a diploma -- at some point.

"My mother is going to freaking kill me," he said. "I turn 25 in March, and she's furious."

Patricia Reville would like to follow his example.

As faculty members and competitors looked on, Reville, a senior business major, described a recycling service that would teach corporate customers to create less trash and resell their recyclables.

Afterward, she described the elevator-pitch experience as slightly more terrifying than the average class presentation. "It's so personal," she said. "It's your baby."

Reville was ready to start right away with a pilot recycling program on campus, if she won. But Foley, a sophomore international affairs major, is committed to school.

He was born in Toronto, attended high school in Boston and wants to live in Asia, working in the banking industry or "whatever makes me money." First, though, he wants to graduate.

"I don't think I have time for this," he told the judges. "I have to study."

Butler, the judge, said Foley's stance hurt his chances of winning. "We weren't sure of his commitment," Butler said. Foley did not finish in the money.

Freshman Thaniil Theoharis came away with the $2,000 top prize in the undergraduate tier:, an "eBay for music producers," where record labels could find talented new artists and bid on their services.

Theoharis, a hip-hop producer, said there is no easy way for someone in his position to reach talent scouts. He said that the cash would help him buy the domain name for his Web site and that the experience had given him new confidence in his business idea.

"I always doubt myself," he said. "But apparently there isn't much that's too bad about it."

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