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Menlo Park: 'Shark Tank' investors sold on Boys & Girls Clubs programs

 

"Duh-nuh. Duh-nuh." The audio blared with a track bearing eerie semblance to "Jaws," and across the conference room of the Quadrus Conference Center on Sand Hill Road in Menlo Park, about a dozen live goldfish in fishbowl centerpieces cowered behind the plastic sharks and laminated fake $100 bills they shared their new homes with.

The audience shuddered in anticipation as two young women strode confidently to the floor to pitch to a panel of sharks a plan to expand a summer learning program that could help more students graduate from high school.

That is to say, more accurately, shark investors.

Those shark investors were local venture capitalists Ted Schlein, Dave Strohm, Peter Wagner, Peter Levine and Doug Leone. They were accompanied by Robert Herjavec, a star of reality TV show "Shark Tank," and were, collectively, the stars of an iteration of the same premise – with a local twist.

"Shark Tank" features entrepreneurs who pitch their business ideas to shark investors who must decide whether to fund the project with their own money. But in this version, the venture capitalists heard two pitches for programs by the Boys & Girls Clubs of the Peninsula, and then decided if they would give money.

The event was spearheaded by Jeff Williams, an entrepreneur who has cultivated the friendship of venture capitalists on Sand Hill Road for decades, and is a board member of BGCP. He brought those two worlds together with three letters in mind: ROI.

By offering funding to the Boys & Girls Clubs of the Peninsula, investors could "dramatically increase the probability of (children) graduating from high school, in their own backyard," he said in an interview. "That's so powerful to me."

The investors were pitched two opportunities: one, to expand the clubs' summer learning program to serve 300 more students in grades 1-5; and the other, to consolidate club activities for elementary and middle school students onto the Hoover Elementary School campus in Redwood City, clearing space at the Redwood City clubhouse for services targeting only high school students. That move is expected to increase participation in the program by 200 high school students.

The pitches were by Boys & Girls Clubs staff members and two alumnae of the program: Lindsay Black, now a senior at Howard University in Washington, D.C., and Nancy Orocio, a graduate of Santa Clara University and program assistant at Catholic Charities.

Then, the investors quizzed them.

Question: How do you measure student academic gains? Response: Students are given before and after assessments in math and reading.

Question: How many alumni go into computer science or engineering? Response: Not a huge number, yet – though there was one program alumnus at the event who is studying in a STEM-related field at San Jose State.

Yuri Ramirez, a Boys & Girls Clubs member and a sophomore at Sequoia High School who was volunteering at the event, said it was interesting to "see all these people wanting to support the Boys & Girls Club."

From the shark investors alone, each of the two programs received $175,000, and as of Feb. 5, $505,000 had been raised overall. According to BGCP development director Sean Mendy, the programs will be offered even if their combined $900,000 cost is not raised from the event.

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