Want to start up your own business? Debate breeds entrepreneurs.

By Denizhan Pak; edited by Nathaniel Hooper, Mickayla Stogsdill

This is me!

My name is Denizhan Pak, and I am the former President and current Senior Advisor of the Tennessee Speech and Debate Society. I am a Computer Science major at the University of Tennessee, and my interests are in programming and software development. Over the past 3 years, I have progressed through the ranks of my undergraduate education and am now looking onward to attending a graduate computer science program, before endeavoring to start my own business. As an aspiring developer and entrepreneur, I will take on future challenges with many skills I gained through collegiate debate. Right now, however, I would like to tell the story of the internship which proved to me that debate and entrepreneurship go hand-in-hand.

In the Fall of 2016, I was hired by the Knoxville Entrepreneur Center (KEC) as an web development intern. However, as with any job where one works with entrepreneurs, I did much more than one thing. Not only did I program, I conducted research, met with startup founders, and offered insight on new products and the resources afforded to new entrepreneurs at the KEC. When I first applied for the job, the sheer amount of amply talented applicants with the same background in computer programming, made it very important to stand out. However, the one experience I had that other applicants did not share is my history as a debater on UTK Debate. Although many people applied with prior experience in programming, I had the unique benefit of having a strong background in communications over my three years of competitive collegiate debate. Ultimately, my experience in collegiate debate assisted my endeavor to attain the job. When I interviewed, my ability to explicate my talents, share my vision for the future of tech entrepreneurship, and connect with the members of the Knoxville Entrepreneur Center with whom I would work, allowed me to stand out ahead of the array of extremely talented applicants and land the job.

This is me teaching a small group of our team right before a tournament!

Moving forward, there are many things Debate gave me that I was able to use in my experience at KEC. Debate was not helpful in communication, it also helped me think critically about new ideas, how to do research, and ask the right questions that others may not have thought to ask. The reason for this is because of the way in which debate is conducted. For three years, I had to prepare for a topic I may have had no clue about before striking into it, and I only had thirty minutes to prepare to give an argument regarding that topic. This experience helped me to think on my feet, and this skill is paramount when working for an entrepreneurial center. Employers in the entrepreneurial field, with limited resources creative thinking becomes the most valuable asset someone can provide, especially when under the pressure of a time limit, and debate prepared me for these moments expressly.

Thinking critically when in a bind is my favorite aspect of debate. To better explain the relationship between this skill set as it applies to the world of startups its important to understand the mechanics of debate. Before a debate round, the two competitors have the choice of five topics, and we have to cut these topics down to one with our opponent. These topics could be in an any field, so I have to be ready to give a convincing argument on a host of issues. These range from current events, pop culture, and even popular food items! The best way to prepare for a debate tournament is to read as much as possible, and this gives me an opportunity to explore different perspectives.

Here’s a shot from our LSUS tournament last year! Pictured left to right: Mickayla Stogsdill, Denizhan Pak, Caroline Rogers

This has connected me with the entrepreneurial skills I need because, in entrepreneurship, new perspectives are crucial. No matter what their product is an entrepreneur has to excel at creating new ways to market their product and come up with new ways to manage their resources. When I began the job at KEC, I used my experience in crafting arguments to suggest ways that, for example, a new startup could pitch their product to an investor. If I hadn’t had the experience with argument-making, creative thinking under pressure, and public speaking that I have, I wouldn’t have had the ability to make these pitches as effectively. Because I did have these skills already, I was able to work within the required framework with ease.

At Knoxville Entrepreneur Center, I was tasked with helping some entrepreneurs do market research. Part of the way I helped them was to help them figure out which questions to ask when finding potential customers. This was a skill that I based on my debate experience, as debate taught me that the only way to make a good argument is understand why someone cares about your topic. A debater must explain why the judge should vote for him or her based upon the real-life connection the debater establishes with the judge on the given issue. Sure, some of the topics we debate can be pretty boring, and it is hard to establish a link. But, that’s where debate helped the most in pitching to potential customers, because many people may not be interested in simply hearing a startup’s product. As with any individual, they want to know why the product is something they need, or will make their life better. Because of debate, I had no problem finding and developing creative reasons why a customer would want a specific product.

It was amazing to lead the team on to winning Regionals, State (pictured here), and Nationals for the fourth year in a row!

Ultimately, whether you are selling a product or making an argument, you are presenting yourself as the best option. Starting a business simply means investing a lot of time and effort into one very long debate, where you have to convince your customers you are the best option. Debate helped me get that point across and taught me that there are many things to consider, things that many entrepreneurs have to learn the hard way. Over my time at KEC, I was exposed to a lot of technical information about starting a business, but during my training I realized that the information was fundamentally nearly identical to the lessons I have learned over the course of my time at the Tennessee Speech and Debate Society. In conclusion, the skills I learned in debate assisted my quest in becoming a more well-rounded debater and a more fruitful entrepreneur.

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