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Entrepreneurial Feeding Frenzy at a 'Shark Tank' Casting Call

In the frenetic, crowded tech environment, everyone is selling something.

Perhaps the strangest pitch I encounter at the “Shark Tank” open casting call in San Francisco is a man who pitches me … myself.

“What’s your passion?” he says. He eyes me without blinking, a not-so-subtle challenge.

“Why do you want to know?”

“We can turn it into a company. I’ll help you achieve your dreams, and I’ll fund you,” he continues on hurriedly, without waiting for assent. “I know the True Ventures guys. I worked at the modern-day Tesla, Saturn. I backed that company, you know the so-and-so?”

He doesn’t know who I am, and it doesn’t seem to matter. I make my escape as soon as possible.

ABC’s “Shark Tank” is known for its competitive theatricality — entrepreneurs pitching their corny hearts out to a panel of seasoned and skeptical investors-cum-judges who include Mark Cuban, Mr. Wonderful and Barbara Corcoran.

Today’s casting call is a special one in the “Shark Tank” world. Mark Burnett, producer of the show, has teamed up with a group called Values Partnerships to bring in underrepresented participants — minorities and women — to pitch their business ideas. They’re holding casting events in six cities from Philadelphia to San Francisco, working with local organizations like San Francisco’s BuildUp to find the talent. Contestants recruited this way don’t have to face the long lines of a typical casting call.

As a result, there are more than a few mothers with children in tow. One clutches her son with one hand and an unwieldy presentation board in the other. She’s selling spaghetti, I’m told. Another, favored by the judges, pitches a currency for kids where they receive rewards for good behavior.

The highly anticipated new judges of “Shark Tank’s” next season, angel investors Chris Sacca, Troy Carter and Ashton Kutcher, are nowhere to be seen. In their stead, two casting directors sit perched on mustard-yellow chairs that engulf them. The hopefuls try out two at a time, their voices echoing off the walls. If they’re picked, they’ll go on to pitch the trinity for Season Seven.

I show up expecting an “American Idol”-scale line snaking around the block, with people in crazy outfits clutching signs and blasting music.

The gift-shop lobby of the Nasdaq Entrepreneurial Center
The gift-shop lobby of the Nasdaq Entrepreneurial Center

Instead, the scene looks like a series of corporate job interviews. It’s held at the dazzlingly clean, white and cold Nasdaq Entrepreneurial Center, a new building that will hold free workshops for founders starting in the fall. Nicola Corzine, the executive director, exclaims its advantages to me in between toothy smiles: “The life journey of entrepreneurship!” “Pro bono!” “Experiential artist exhibits!”

Three or four entrepreneurs at a time sit in the lobby of the center before heading into a stark, tiled room to pitch the judges. In the waiting area they talk among themselves in hushed voices, furtively sizing each other up. “It’s only my second time pitching,” says a curly-haired woman named Daniela Semeco. “Really?” Julia Lam, a venture-backed founder, replies, eyebrows raised. As a former Facebook employee, Lam already had seed investors for her trip-planning app, Bucket.

After the women head in to pitch, I sit with contestant Joey Amanchukwu, who is holding a bulky laptop running Linux. Coming from the sales department at Dell, he’s now hoping to get into the “IT as a service for the cloud” business, offering cheap computers to companies. As I know very little about IT or Linux, his pitch is lost on me. My confusion doesn’t puncture his cloud of calm.

Once Amanchukwu departs, another man, Lull Mengesha, immediately takes his place on the couch next to me. At this point, I’ve gotten enough special treatment from the organizers that those waiting to see the judges decide I must be important.

Mengesha, easily the most charming of those auditioning, has built a service to help dating companies weed out fake profiles and figure out which users are most likely to pay for a premium feature. As a Tinder and OkCupid consumer, he made spreadsheets tracking people’s responses to him, trying to deduce through data who liked him and who didn’t.

“I’m not quite creepy, but I’m overwhelming,” he says when I ask what he learned. He eventually automated the analysis with a different app called Eager Beaver. Disrupt love.

Joey Amanchukwu and his Linux-running laptop
Joey Amanchukwu and his Linux-running laptop

After a while, I’m granted access to the pitching room, where I take up residence on a stool beside the two casting directors. I catch bits and pieces of a pitch presented by a wild-haired, bold-lipsticked woman who is hawking tiny silver ear decorations. She says she’s selling them to empower women in tech, and I think I hear her say “Bluetooth-enabled” and “meteorologists wear it on different networks in the South,” which sounds promising. But when she finishes and leaves the room, the judge shrugs and says it was just jewelry.

Seated on my other side is an older woman with horn-rimmed glasses — Joan Barnes, the founder of children’s clothing chain Gymboree. She’s working with the Entrepreneurial Center and is there to watch, not judge. Her favorite pitch of the day is hand sanitizer that doubles as mouth refreshment. “Every time I pump gas, I want to do something to my hands,” she says.

As a member of the press, I’m only allowed to see a few pitches before I’m shepherded back to the waiting room.

One woman follows me from room to room, looking for her opportunity. She doesn’t ask what I do, and instead opens up her phone to show me a customizable keyboard she has built for people who speak multiple languages. Her black combat boots tap on the floor.

In the frenetic, crowded environment of the tech biz, everyone has something they’re selling, even if it’s not apparent at first glance. It’s a victory to have anyone at all pause for a moment to listen.

This article originally appeared on Recode.net.

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