Students question fairness of Stern Venture Challenge judging

Nicole Brown, Investigative Editor

The 13th Annual Stern Venture Competition has come under scrutiny in recent months, and suspicions of unfair judging exist among some of the teams.

The annual competition divides a $200,000 cash prize among three winning teams. To enter, each student team pays a fee of $75, while teams comprised completely of alumni pay $150. This year, 175 teams were competing at the beginning of the competition. Past winners of the competition include the founder of America Smiles, a company that treats and educates areas with little access to oral health care.

The Cobalt team, comprised of MBA student Isaac Palka and his brother, class of 2010 alumnus Omer Palka, submitted its real estate business plan. The brothers became suspicious when they logged onto their account on Dec. 17, a day before the semi-finalists would be announced.

The team noticed that their Activity Stream, which tracks when and by whom documents are downloaded or viewed, had no records of the three judges assigned to their project downloading their three documents.

The rules of the game:

There are three categories in the venture competition: New Venture competition, Social Venture competition and Technology Venture competition. The Palka brothers entered the New Venture competition.

Currently 39 teams remain in all three competitions combined, and the next round of eliminations will continue after the Semifinal Pitch-Off on April 19.

The teams entered the competition in October and submitted a one-page summary, three-minute video and a business model canvas to present its business idea. These documents were not judged officially but used in workshops and coaching sessions before the submission of new documents for the first round of judging.

The first round, known as Feasibility Analysis, took place in December after each team submitted a 3-to-6 minute PowerPoint with audio, a three-page Venture summary and a business model canvas. This round assessed the teams’ potential for financial profitability and the ability of the team to execute the business goals.

These documents were uploaded as attachments onto, a website designed for entrepreneurs and investors. As a central hub for all document exchange between competitors and judges, the website allowed adjudicators to look at the documents of each team and rate them based on the content of their documents. The Activity Stream appears on each of the teams’ pages on Gust.

Suspicions of careless judging:

Concerned that the judges had not looked at all their materials, the Palkas emailed Loretta Poole, associate director of the Berkley Center.

In their email, they explained that not all their documents had been downloaded. Only one of the judges had downloaded all three files. One did not download the PowerPoint, and the other only downloaded the business model canvas.

In the email to the Palkas, Poole responded:

“I would think the reviewers viewed your documents and might not have downloaded them.”

The uncertainty of Poole’s response concerned the Palka team.

The Palkas received that email from Poole at 2:35 p.m. on Dec. 17, approximately an hour after they wrote to her.

The Palkas then noticed that between 2:30 p.m. and 3:34 p.m., their Activity Stream showed that the two judges who had previously not downloaded all of their files had completely downloaded their materials.

The next day, the semi-finalists were announced and the Palka team was not among them.


In January, the Palkas received the email sent to all the participants who were eliminated from the competition, which also included the judges’ feedback on their project.

After reading the comments, the Palkas noticed that the judges had misquoted and misunderstood their material.

For example, one judge questioned the team’s choice of target demographic, which he identified as New Yorkers ages 22-40, even though the materials did not specify an age for target demographics.

“It was pretty clear that they only glanced through the documents,” Isaac Palka said.

The Palkas said they do not think the judges wronged them purposefully but think the whole judging process was very disorganized.

They pointed out the misquoted material and asked Poole why they were disqualified.

In response, Poole emphasized the competitiveness of this year’s entries and later sent the Palkas a full page of feedback from another judge that was positive overall.

A few weeks later, the Palkas met with the director of the Berkley Center, Luke Williams, and the senior associate director of the Berkley Center, Cynthia Franklin, to discuss the issue.

“They kept assuring us that our business was reviewed fairly, but they were unable to explain why the comments did not match our documents,” Isaac Palkas said.

Shortly after, the Palkas found out that another team had a similar experience.

After receiving no feedback when they were eliminated in the first round of judging, the Laos team reached out to Poole on Jan. 8.

Poole responded with feedback that discussed their insect repellent pitch, an idea they scrapped before the first round of judging. The three documents they submitted to the first round of judging detailed a plan for a laundry detergent.

The Laos team also saw on its Activity Stream that the first time any judge downloaded its three-page concept summary was on Jan. 8, the day they had requested feedback.

Poole admitted to the team that the feedback was on the wrong documents and said that a reviewer had notified her that he or she was having difficulty viewing the team’s documents during the review period.

Although the team was re-evaluated, it was not allowed to re-enter the competition.

“We do not need to rely on teams to tell us whether or not their ventures have been viewed and evaluated,” Franklin said. “We actively monitor which evaluators have submitted their feedback.”

The Berkley Center also stated that although downloads did not appear on the teams’ Activity Streams on, their documents could still be viewed, a functionality that was confirmed by a Gust representative.

However, the Palkas do not think this explains why their feedback did not accurately reflect the documents. They said they wondered why the judges downloaded the materials after both teams notified Poole if they were already viewed before.

However, Franklin defended the judges.

“The judges stand by their evaluations and encourage those teams who did not advance to the next phase of the competition to continue to learn from the workshops and feedback,” she said.

The teams who say they didn’t receive a proper review encourage the remaining teams to check up on their projects to ensure a fair assessment in the competition.

“With $200,000 awarded annually and the chance for entrepreneurs to start a real business, there needs to be a clearer and more rigorous judging process,” Isaac Palka said.

This article was published in two parts in the Tuesday April 9 and the Wednesday, April 10 print edition. Nicole Brown is investigative editor. Email her at [email protected].