By Sarah Mauet


McGuire Entrepreneurship Program team SpeakEsy is off to a great start. Though the team just formed in August, it took top prize at the 2013 IdeaFunding Rocket Pitch Competition in October. Competing against 10 other teams, SpeakEsy won $2,500 and the opportunity to present a five-minute pitch at the evening’s Desert Angels dinner. IdeaFunding is an annual event that brings together entrepreneurs, investors and community leaders from across Southern Arizona for a day of entrepreneurship education, networking and competition.

Under development by four McGuire Program MBA students, Anindya Gupta, Vikas Gupta, Yegor Makhiboroda and Daniel Tatum, SpeakEsy is an online practice environment for public speaking that analyzes volume, pitch, tone and verbal distractors (the ums and uhs that pepper normal speech) and provides real-time feedback to users.

“The idea came from our business communications course,” said Tatum. “We all felt that we learned a lot in class, from the teacher and others classmates. We started by asking how we could provide similar training to students and young professionals that is cost effective and convenient.”

The demand for the new venture concept was bolstered by a Wall Street Journal statistic that 85 percent of new college graduates in India can’t get jobs because of poor communication skills, and by anecdotal surveys that claim that people fear public speaking more than they fear death, Tatum said. Additionally, after working for Microsoft in a consulting assignment, the team realized the in-roads 3D immersive training has been making in corporate training.

“Combining this cutting edge technology with the need-gap we identified, we decided to pursue this product,” said Anindya Gupta. “A 3D presentation simulator can be innovative, engaging, and effective.”

Students in the McGuire Entrepreneurship Program receive a year of intensive experiential education that engages them in the process of moving innovation from an early-stage idea to a sustainable investor-ready venture. Though there are some summer assignments to encourage students to begin thinking entrepreneurially, the McGuire Program begins in earnest at the start of the fall semester, so it’s unusual for a current McGuire Program team to pitch at IdeaFunding in October.

“All of us are pretty ambitious and we need a deadline or goal to go after,” Tatum said. “We were talking about pitching for IdeaFunding in August. Preparing for IdeaFunding forced us to work hard and stay ahead of our assignments.”

Emre Toker, the McGuire Program entrepreneurship mentor-in-residence who meets with the team weekly, said SpeakEsy is the fastest moving team he’s worked with since joining the McGuire Program in 2010.

“SpeakEsy is an exceptional team,” he said. “They seem determined to launch and have been gearing themselves up for it since day one.”

The team plans to apply its prize winnings toward hiring a programmer for voice modulation software as well as future development. The team has already developed a simulation prototype that resembles a real public speaking setting, with an audience that fidgets and makes noise. The goal is to desensitize users to outside distractions while minimizing the physical effects of anxiety a speaker may feel. Through personalized feedback from tutorials and practice sessions, SpeakEsy users will be able to polish public speaking skills in a fun and engaging way.

“With practice, we hope people become great presenters,” Tatum said, “but at the very least, we want people to be more comfortable while public speaking.”

Top photo: Team SpeakEsy took home the top prize at the 2013 IdeaFunding Rocket Pitch Competition in October. From left, Daniel Tatum, Vikas Gupta, Anindya Gupta and Yegor Makhiboroda. Photo by Sarah Mauet.