Fledgling Penguin Businesses Swim with Sharks

Seven brave Youngstown State University Penguins put their business aspirations out in front of their peers and four sharks April 26.

And there was a lot on the line. Real seed money – $8,000 provided by a gift through the Burton D. Morgan Foundation – was up for grabs at the Penguin Shark Tank competition at the Williamson College of Business Administration.

The Penguin students competed in two categories – one geared toward businesses more in the idea phase and the other for more established business ideas.

Finally, the audience got to vote for their favorite five-minute pitch presentation.

The sharks for the event pushed the students at times with questions they admittedly had not thought about, requiring them to look at pricing structures, social media marketing options suitable for the intended audience and how their businesses could expand beyond them doing most of the work themselves.

“I would have to say you guys are very brave,” said Jacki Ruller, director of advanced manufacturing research and commercialization at the Excellence Training Center, who headed the committee for the event. “For Penguins to be willing to swim with the sharks, that’s pretty impressive. I never had the guts personally to go out on my own and try to start my own company.”

When the waves settled, Elly Volz, who presented her business, Otis’s Jewelry Co., and Annabelle Himes, who operates a growing business, Heroes and Tiaras, each took home the $1,500 grand prizes in their respective categories.

Volz designs her jewelry on a computer and has a manufacturer making them a reality in a variety of metals. Himes’ princesses and superheroes entertained at 425 birthday parties in 2022 and are on pace to double that level in 2023.

“The Mahoning Valley has been extremely supportive of my little dream,” Himes said as she concluded her pitch.

Ely Vuksanovich, creator of one-of-a-kind repurpose items through her business Curios and Whatnots, and Zachary Arnett, who intends to use his etching skills to create custom items through Scorchmark Engraving, each took home second place and $600 in the business idea category.

The owner of SYK Softwash LLC, Saki Atsas, is in the process of paying off his equipment investment while working weekends cleaning the outside of houses and roofs.

Atsas won $1,100 for second place in the established business category, as well as the audience favorite pitch award with 36% of the vote.

Ivan Bosnjak of BigHot Entertainment and Mya Snyder of Sew What? Sew That! each took home $600 after tying for third place with their established businesses.

Snyder takes used denim and other materials and repurposes them into designer bags with the hopes of adding clothing to her line. Bosnjak has already expanded from being a DJ to offering a long list of services for parties and events.

The Penguins in the competition continue to attend YSU while operating their businesses and honing their ideas.

Some are learning new manufacturing skills at the Excellence Training Center on campus. And some have taken advantage of resources through the Youngstown Business Incubator.

“I was happily surprised because I thought all seven students were unbelievably amazing,” Ruller said.

“It’s not my area, but I thought they all did a really, really good job. I thought their companies were amazing. I thought their ideas were amazing. I thought their presentations were amazing. … I was seriously blown away,” she said.

Ruller said the sharks also helped to make the event a success.

“I’m so appreciative of the sharks, their knowledge and how they handled it, their enthusiasm and their energy. … I really hope it’s the springboard for events every year.”

Ruller said one of the things that came out of the event is a website, which provides the resources for YSU students interested in entrepreneurship, to form businesses and find resources on campus.

These include webinars on how to do a pitch.

“No matter what happens, they’ve grown so much just going through that,” Ruller said after the event.

One of the sharks, Barb Ewing, CEO of the Youngstown Business Incubator, said she has ideas, resources and connections she would like to help make for each of the students who presented at the event.

Through a program with Case Western Reserve University, the YSU entrepreneurs will gain access to tech upgrades for their businesses, such as setting up websites, online accounting systems and online sales, she said.

“You hate to turn any of them down,” Ewing said. “Really, I think the ones that we picked were differentiated from the other ones, but we really hated to tell any of them no.”

“It was very difficult,” said Ellen Tressel, who also served as one of the sharks.

“They obviously put a lot of work into it, a lot of planning and a lot of thought. It’s tough. A lot of these guys are one-man shops, and that’s a big deal too. … With a little hard work and persistence, I think they are all going to make it,” Tressel said.

Maeson Green, CEO of Relaced 330 and a YSU alumnus, also served as a shark and said YSU gives the students a lot of resources that help to foster their ideas. The Penguin Shark Tank event helped the students showcase their talents.

“At the end of the day, seeing the entrepreneurial spirit,” Green said, “I came out two years ago and to see how it’s going right now, it’s just phenomenal. I’m excited to see what’s coming in the future.”

Pictured at top: The Penguins and the sharks are, from left, Danny Catullo, vice president of Ecommerce at PPX Hospitality, Legal Sea Foods, Smith & Wollensky and Strega Italiano, and a shark; Annabelle Himes, owner of Heroes and Tiaras; Mya Snyder, owner of Sew What? Sew This!; Barb Ewing, CEO of the Youngstown Business Incubator, and a shark; Ivan Bosnjak, owner of BigHot Entertainment; Saki Atsas, owner of SYK Softwash LLC; Elly Votz, owner of Otis’s Jewelry Co.; Zachary Arnett, owner of Scorchmark Engraving; Ely Vuksanovich, owner of Curios and Whatnots; Ellen Tressel, philanthropist, and a shark; Maeson Green, CEO of Relaced 330, and a shark.