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More than 600 attend Heartland Shark Tank casting call

The first step in getting on Shark Tank, the reality TV startup pitch competition, is a casting call. On April 6, 150 teams got their chance to pitch to one of five casting producers in Lincoln. The event was organized by the Engler Entrepreneurship Program at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. “This is the time of…

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The first step in getting on Shark Tank, the reality TV startup pitch competition, is a casting call. On April 6, 150 teams got their chance to pitch to one of five casting producers in Lincoln. The event was organized by the Engler Entrepreneurship Program at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.

“This is the time of year when they do open casting calls,” said Brennan Costello, Chief Business Relations Officer for the Engler Program. “Mindy (Zemrak, Supervising Casting Producer for Shark Tank) wasn’t sure if Lincoln was a great place for it. If we wanted them to come, we had to convince her – and pay for it.”

The Engler team was skeptical, but excited.

“I sent her a lot of SPN stories about what’s happening in Lincoln and the region,” Costello said. “I also sent some national stories about entrepreneurship in the Midwest.”

After seeing the stories, Zemrak was interested. The Engler team decided to foot at least part of the bill and confirmed the date.

“We had twenty really solid sponsors step up to help pay for it,” Costello said. “We were really excited that so many jumped on. The key thing we care about is that it was a community event.”

A casting call in Oklahoma City last year attracted 92 teams. Zemrak set a goal of 200 for Lincoln.

“We realized teams couldn’t just come from Lincoln or Nebraska,” Costello said. “This needed to be about entrepreneurs from the Heartland.”

The breadth of the community who came to pitch at the event was very exciting to the Engler Team.

“We saw a big diversity of eager founders who came to take their shot at Shark Tank,” Costello said. “We met founders of every age, gender, across the region, socio-economic background, tech and non-tech ideas. And that’s what made this event so exciting, this was entrepreneurship for everyone.”

The Engler team looked for ways to not only recruit teams to pitch from around the region, but also how to add value in other ways.

“It really grew into a bigger event called the Heartland Shark Tank,” Costello said. “More than 600 people came to our Shark Tank Showcase on Friday night.”

The Showcase featured the stories of seven founders from five companies who each have appeared on Shark Tank. The companies included Line Cutterz, Echo Valley Meats, Jackson’s Honest, The Dough Bar and Omaha’s own eCreamery. The Showcase also included an insider’s look at a Shark Tank Casting Call from Zemrak, who’s worked on the show since season one.

“It was a unique night of stories about building a business from an idea into a product or service and growing it rapidly,” Costello said. “Mindy said they had never been to something like this before.”

The event drew teams from across the Midwest and beyond.

“One couple came from Texas,” Costello said. “There were people from Iowa, Kansas City, South Dakota, Chicago and even Washington, D.C. We also reached people in Greater Nebraska. Our totals beat Oklahoma City, Nashville and Tacoma.”

It will be some time before anyone knows whether one or more teams from the Lincoln audition will make it on the show.

“Season 10 is airing now and they’re auditioning for season 11,” Costello said. “With nondisclosure agreements, they can’t tell us until two weeks before the episode airs. We won’t know for a long time, it could be a year.”

How did the idea for Heartland Shark Tank come about?

“I attended the ESHIP Summit put on by the Kauffman Foundation last year and met an entrepreneur from Alaska who was trying to grow his ecosystem,” Costello said. “He hosted the Shark Tank producers in Alaska for a community pitch night.”

That provided the connection for Costello to reach out to the program.

“I wanted to look at the possibility of having her judge one of our student competitions.” Costello said. “but Mindy talked about how an Open Casting Call was actually of more value to her purposes, so we took a shot at it.”

One thing led to another, and the result was the Heartland Shark Tank. The event fits squarely within the mission of the Engler Program.

“It let us showcase what we really want to do, which is to support entrepreneurship all across Nebraska,” Costello said. “That’s why this event fit so well.  It provided a unique opportunity for entrepreneurs in Nebraska that they haven’t been able to access before.”

Will there be another Heartland Shark Tank?

“We’d love to bring it back, maybe Omaha or Grand Island or even South Dakota,” Costello said. “The Engler team believes in the Heartland and people who live here. It’s why we invested so much time, energy, and sweat into this event. Whether it’s Shark tank in the future, or something else, we’ll keep working to showcase our Heartland entrepreneurs.”

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