#GES2016 at Stanford: How the Stars Aligned for the “Fire Champion” Winner of the “Spark the Fire” Pitch Competition

By Jenny Q. Ta, CEO & Co-Founder of VCNetwork.co

Growing up as a welfare child, it would have been unimaginable for me to think that I would ever have the opportunity to set foot on the campus of Stanford, one of the top universities in the world. But I did. As it turns out I was hand-picked to be one of 300 delegates to attend the seventh annual Global Entrepreneurship Summit (GES) in Silicon Valley, California in June 2016 — a summit held at this prestigious university.

It was during his “A New Beginning” speech on June 4, 2009, at Cairo University in Cairo, Egypt, that President Obama first announced that the U.S. would host a Summit on Entrepreneurship to identify how we might deepen ties between business leaders, foundations, and entrepreneurs in the United States and Muslim communities around the world. The Global Entrepreneurship Summit (GES) has since become an annual event. However, this year, 2016, marks President Obama’s final year of involvement in the summit as he wraps up his second term in office.

Prior to this year’s event, the United States announced that over 700 entrepreneurs and more than 300 investors had been selected to attend the 2016 Global Entrepreneurship Summit. These GES participants were selected from among the more than 5,000 entrepreneurs from across the world who had submitted applications.

Of the 686 total entrepreneurs registered from 170 countries and territories — including Africa, East Asia and Pacific, Europe and Eurasia, the Near East, South and Central Asia, the Western Hemisphere, and the USA — the average age was 36 years old and 51% were men while 49% were women. The top five industries represented include 94% Information Technology, 91% Education, 56% Technology, 54% Health, and 44% Energy.

The 328 investors and supporters registered came from 65 countries and territories, of which 182 were from the USA, 135 from Africa, 28 from the Near East, 24 from Europe and Eurasia, 23 from the Western Hemisphere, 14 from East Asia and Pacific, and 11 from South and Central Asia. The types of companies and organizations represented by the registered investors include 103 venture capital firms, 53 accelerators, 39 funds, 30 foundation and PAGE members or staff, 28 mentors, 23 corporations, 18 incubators, and 4 banking institutions.

Day one, Wednesday, June 22: I caught a cab from my hotel, which was on the opposite end of California State Route 84. Going across the Dumbarton Bridge through Fremont and Newark, which takes about 30 to 45 minutes depending on traffic, I arrived at Stanford University around 11:00 am. The experience was a bit nerve wracking yet full of excitement at the same time. The taxi dropped me off on the opposite end of the campus, so it took me nearly half an hour to walk from one end of campus to the other to register and pick up my credential badges.

As I walked around one of the top universities in the world nearly two decades after I’d received my bachelor’s degree at Cal State University, Fresno, I felt like a college kid all over again. College students were riding their bikes, dressed very casually, though I’m certain their down-to-earth appearance didn’t quite reflect the way they actually felt inside being one of Stanford’s nearly 7,000 undergraduates.

By the time I finished collecting my credential badges, it was past noon, so I headed back to the central campus, realizing it was lunch time. GES offered free lunches for all attendees at the Ford Plaza where round tables were set up in the surrounding areas. With temperatures in the mid 70’s, it was quite nice to eat outside. The lunch was buffet-style with hundreds of thousands of attendees from different parts of the world, different cultures and religions lined up to share an all-American meal. After getting my plate of mixed dishes and a bottle of water, I began zeroing in on a table where I could sit and begin my networking experience.

I asked one of the GES staff if there was a spot with electrical outlets to charge my iPhone as the battery was already half-depleted. The staffer pointed to a table next to a tent, informing me that it was the only place where I would find an outlet. I quickly looked where he was pointing and noticed that there were still empty chairs, so I rushed over to reserve my seat and claim the electrical outlet. After setting my iPhone to charge, I sat down to eat my lunch. Extending my hand across the table to an African woman working diligently with a notebook in front of her, I offered a “Hello, my name is Jenny.” Turns out her name was Charity, and she was from Kenya. “Ahhh … where President Obama’s father was from,” I quickly replied. She said, “Yes, we love President Obama there.” Curious, I remarked, “You don’t have lunch. Aren’t you hungry?” She answered, “Yes, but I’m cramming to finalize my pitch because I’m up immediately after lunch.” She then asked if I was an entrepreneur and where I was from. I replied, “I’m an investor, mentor, and entrepreneur as well. I flew up from Los Angeles” (actually, I flew from Orange County, but everyone knows L.A. better). She was quiet thereafter, so I didn’t say anything further to let her finish with whatever she was working on. Another young lady came and sat next to me. She was a GES volunteer.

It was nearly 1:30 pm by the time I’d finished my lunch, taken a few photos for safekeeping, and then started wandering around the campus just to “check things out.” Without utilizing the maps we’d been given, I wandered to the Graduate School of Business (GSB) buildings, where I was amazed to recognize our 66th Secretary of State, Condoleezza Rice. She was lecturing before a class of about a dozen or so students. I took a few snapshots, and she looked out the window at me, probably thinking I was a foreigner or a tourist. Haha!

It was nearly 2:00 pm now and I thought it was time to head back to the CEMEX Auditorium where I would be meeting Steven, the Startup Community Manager of the Global Entrepreneurship Network, which is headquartered in Washington D.C. and operates in 160 Countries. Steven would be assigning me one of the six finalists to mentor before the final pitching competition at 5:00 pm. The CEMEX Auditorium was just two buildings down from where Secretary Rice was teaching, so I arrived there quite early. The auditorium was dark and the stage was fully set with GES2016 logos and banners. I was startled by a young lady right behind me who was looking along the floors and walls. I then asked her, “Let me guess. You’re looking for an electrical plug, right?” She smiled and replied, “Yes, are you looking for one too?” I responded by saying that someone needs to build something to resolve the battery charging problem.

Both she and I walked up the stairs where we found an electrical outlet and we both plugged our phones in. Then, sitting in the seats on either end, we talked, and she introduced herself as Kenia, an entrepreneur from Jamaica. I asked what her business idea was and she told me briefly about her passion for storytelling and teaching to inspire positive social change. She asked about me, and I responded that I was there to mentor the final six finalists, and then I shared a little of my background. We clicked so well that as we walked back out to the front entry way, I wished her luck with her pitch for “Round 2,” and she replied that if she won she would love to have me as her coach for the final round.

It was nearly 3:00 pm then, and Steven, the Startup Community Manager was already there waiting for all six mentors to show up and for the six finalists to wrap up their pitches in round two. One by one the coaches came, along with the finalists. Steven started the match-up, and he assigned me a male entrepreneur from Thailand. He has a Thai name, but he goes by Neil. I was thrilled because his first and last names were quite difficult to pronounce. Neil asked me to look after his things while he ran to the restroom and made a quick call to his father. He wanted to let his dad know that he had made it into the final pitching competition. He seemed proud, nervous, and excited all at the same time.

As I waited for Neil, I used Viber messaging to contact my partner, Shinta Dhanuwardoyo from Jakarta, Indonesia. It was about 5:00 am her time and she had just awoken to do her daily prayers. She asked how things were going and I gave her a quick update. She was as excited for me as I was nervous. I didn’t pay much attention to the other five finalists or their coaches as they were assigned just a few feet away from where I was standing.

When Neil returned, he grabbed his things and he and I walked alongside one another looking for a quiet area where we could sit down to go over his pitch for the next two hours. We walked next door to the Arbuckle Dining Pavilion where Neil wanted to grab something to drink, but everything was closed. There were no open registers, no food and no drinks. Neil said he was hoping to get some water, so I magically pulled a brand new bottle of sparkling water from my briefcase and handed it to him. Neil was thrilled and opened the bottle, which sprayed some water on the table. We both laughed, and I told him that the spilling of water was a good Feng-Shui sign.

Over the next two hours we varied the conversation between his pitch and other topics, including personal questions about his family and mine, the meaning of success and wealth to me, and how he wanted to prove to his father, who is a self-made multi-millionaire in Thailand, that he could build wealth and help others at the same time. In two hours, he went from having over 77 PowerPoint slides to having zero slides and a short three-minute pitch for the final round,

I not only felt humbled sitting next to him, but he reminded me of who I was when I was his age and already a self-made millionaire running my second broker-dealer/investment banking firm. He was as driven as I was and as full of a giving heart as the person that I have continued to be. Neil received his Bachelor of Environmental Engineering and Economics at the University of Melbourne in Australia in 2006, and then went on to study for his MBA at Sasin University in Thailand and was in a co-program with Kellogg School of Management, so he spent some time at Kellogg as well. He completed his MBA in 2011 and came up with the idea for his current company, Siam Organic, about one year later, in 2012.

It was 5:00 pm on the dot when we rushed back to the CEMEX Auditorium, which was right next door. We ran into Steven, who anxiously said to us, “Hurry, you’re late! You’re on next!” I said, “Late? Thought you told us 5:00 pm sharp.” Steven hurried both of us in, and as he guided us through the theater, I could see that it was packed. Based on Stanford’s information, the theater’s seating capacity is 592, but I felt there were a lot more — perhaps 700–800 — because there were a lot of people standing and sitting against the walls on both sides. When got to the back of the stage, Steven said to everyone, “Our last guy is here. Let’s take a few quick pictures of the six finalists before their pitches.”

One by one, all six finalists stood next to one another, and that was when I realized for the first time that the two ladies that I had met earlier — Charity during lunch and Kenia in an empty auditorium — were among the six finalists. I was shocked and stunned. I went over and shook both their hands and congratulated them. All the finalists were nervous, pacing around the room with their mentors and coaches sitting nearby. One by one they were being called to present their three-minute pitch in front of a panel of judges from Google, Microsoft, Dell, World Bank, and Omidyar Network. Neil was no different. He was pacing nervously. He asked me if I knew when he would be up, so I went to one of the stage managers and asked her, but she didn’t know either. She went to find out and returned to say that Neil would be the third to fourth person up. Pointing to a finalist who was also pacing in the corner, she said that Neil would be after her. So, we now knew our spot.

Neil’s turn came and I was more nervous than he was. We held hands and said a prayer to Buddha, since Neil is a Buddhist and I was raised a Buddhist as well. I wished him luck, reminded him to speak clearly in areas I felt are key, and to remain calm at all times. We gave each other a hug and he went onstage. I followed up, but I went to the side wall to snap pictures and record videos for him to share with his family, knowing that this was, after all, a once-in-a-lifetime moment.

His pitch was done, and it was the fastest three minutes I have ever gone through in a lifetime. As Neil was heading backstage, I rushed back there with him. He was still nervous and mumbling as if he thought he had made some mistakes and wasn’t sure that he’d done it as perfectly as he had hoped. I grabbed his hand and pulled him to a corner where there was a couch and told him, “Calm down. I believe you did great, and I’m going to share with you this odd short story.” To calm him down, I began sharing with him that I had first met Charity during lunch, and she was the very first person I had talked to here at GES. Then the very second person I ran into and spent nearly an hour in a dark auditorium with was Kenia. They both ended up being among the six finalists, and he, Neil, was the one I ended up coaching. I asked him, “Isn’t that weird?” Neil responded, “So the stars lined up, huh?” I said, “Yes, and most certainly you did well, and not only will you make your father so proud, but your entire country, Thailand, will be known because of you!”

He teared up a little, and said “Thank you,” as we continued to wait for the judges to finalize their scores. Then the stage managers called all six finalists to go back out onstage and sit in the six reserved front row seats on the right-side of the theater. The judges were sitting front row center. I felt so nervous as I leaned against a wall on the right side of the theater. Finally the judges came out and thanked the audience of at least 700 guests and shared their thoughts about each of the entrepreneur’s business models.

Then the emcee, who was from the U.S. Department of State, called the second runner up, the “Fire Startup Winner,” which was Kenia Mattis from Jamaica. She won a $15,000 USD cash prize presented by Microsoft, other prizes from Dell, Shinola watches, and Airbnb vouchers. The first runner up, the “Fire Catalyst Winner,” was Oded Ben Dov from Israel. He won a $20,000 USD cash prize presented by Omidyar Network. Then drum rolls filled the air as the emcee slowly called out the winner of the “Spark the Fire” pitch competition, which went to Peetachai (Neil) Dejkraisak, the “Fire Champion Winner,” from Thailand. Neil will take home a $30,000 USD cash prize, a Dell Laptop, a Shinola watch, and Airbnb vouchers.

I literally screamed as I stood leaning against the side wall, snapping pictures and recording videos at the same time.

The stars did align … Destiny and faith kicked in … Neil and I were simply destined to cross paths! Congratulations to all three winners, but my utmost congratulations to Neil! His future will certainly be bright!