OPINION | DANA KELLEY: TV inspires reality

Television wasn't around for the pronouncement of the biblical dictum, "There's nothing new under the sun," but few industries have been as successful at taking old ideas and recycling them for new audiences.

You've likely heard of the popular TV series "Shark Tank," a reality show in which entrepreneurs pitch their ideas to a quintet of venture capitalist investors, who consider whether or not to invest in their companies and ideas.

Small-screen entertainment is a numbers game, and the show's ratings have been solid in its time slot at about 4 million viewers per week. Now in its 15th season, the show's system itself has also racked up some remarkable numerical statistics.

In 300 episodes through 14 seasons, the Sharks have heard 1,274 product pitches, and pledged nearly $232 million in funding for 766 deals. California entrepreneurs have fared best on the show, accounting for almost 30 percent of all deals made and investment monies awarded.

Each season, between 35,000 and 40,000 entrepreneurs apply, with only 1,000 or so advancing to the next screening step, from which 150 contestants get to make pitches. Fewer than 100 finalists wind up on the air in the televised episodes.

"Shark Tank" launched in the U.S. in 2009, but the format concept was first introduced in Japan in 2001. There the program is called "The Tigers of Money," and in the 23 years since the model has appeared in more than 40 countries under the names of "Dragon's Den," "Lion's Arena" and other variations, including a number of other "Shark Tank" versions.

The U.S. show has proven durable and popular for several reasons, not least of which is the win-win nature of the program. The already successful Sharks enjoy elevated celebrity, and aspiring entrepreneurs get a real chance at angel funding and priceless publicity.

Plus, "Shark Tank" has produced some real home runs in terms of winning products. Bombas socks, despite acerbic Shark Kevin O'Leary's dismissal ("you guys are still sock cockroaches"), won a deal with Daymond John in Season 6. Since then, the company famous for donating one pair of socks for every pair sold has done more than $1 billion in business--and given away 35 million pairs.

But perhaps the best aspect of the "Shark Tank" franchise is its expansion into educational reality, where it has sharpened focus among students on innovation and entrepreneurship--twin cornerstones of our free-enterprise system.

This past week, the Delta Center for Economic Development, based at Arkansas State University in Jonesboro, hosted its second annual "Thrown to the Wolves" innovation competition for high school students.

Teams from six area schools showed up on Wednesday to brave the Wolves' Den with the projects, where they would face two rounds of scrutiny by panels of judges. At stake were tiered prizes for the top three winners that included cash, scholarships, mentoring sessions, free workspace opportunities and, for the overall champion, a professionally produced marketing package to promote their product.

The official challenge to students was to "demonstrate critical thinking, creativity, collaboration, and communication skills by developing an innovative project as an entrepreneur and preparing a pitch and business/marketing campaign for that innovation."

The students did that, and how! Ideas ranged from new multi-use glasses for people with severe visual impairments to a new human resources management platform to a heatable cotton glove for mothers that simulates a warm hand on a baby's back.

The top-three winners circle included teams from Cross County, Walnut Ridge and Buffalo Island Central high schools.

From Cross County, Mali Wallis, Lexi Jarrett and Bo Cook took third place for a device called the "Button Buddy" that helps people with limited mobility fasten and unfasten buttons on their clothing.

Jersie Cunningham was a lone wolf from Walnut Ridge who pitched a hat and clothing line branded as Sloughboys, capitalizing on Arkansas' leadership as a duck-hunting mecca. The apparel brand was presented as similar to Salt Life, which represents the attitude and mindset of people who live near the ocean, but aimed at waterfowl sport lovers.

The leader of the pack and overall Thrown to the Wolves winners were Leo Thompson, Aiden Nance and Cason Kifer from Buffalo Island Central for their customizable Sensory Board with changeable elements targeted to individuals living in assisted-care facilities.

A new twist this year was a popular-vote award called the Pack Pick, similar to "people's choice" options in other competitions. That prize went to Quentin Gantt and Jamarriah Williams from Jonesboro for their tutoring app incorporating biblical scriptures and stories to help engage children in curriculum learning.

Nothing about entrepreneurship is easy--especially taking the plunge to make a public pitch for your idea. All these young students taking center stage before seasoned and successful business people, consultants, executives and educators took not only extraordinary fortitude, but also extensive extracurricular planning and background work.

Too often we forget to notice, much less count, the blessings of our nation's commitment to public education. The "Thrown to the Wolves" competition, and similar innovation programs in other areas and states, merit that pause and recognition.

Well done!

Dana D. Kelley is a freelance writer from Jonesboro.

CORRECTION: A previous version of this article incorrectly spelled Quentin Gantt's name.

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