By Farrah Shaikh
Updated December 11, 2015
© The Boston Beer Company

Sam Adams’ philanthropic program, Brewing the American Dream, helps small food and beverage businesses take their companies to the next level through microfinancing and coaching. Sam Adams founder Jim Koch started the program in 2008. Since its launch, the program has distributed close to $7 million in loans, helped create over 2,700 jobs and provided over 6,000 small business with critical mentoring and coaching.

A key part of the program is the Pitch Room Competition, sort of like Shark Tank minus Mark Cuban trying to fleece you for 90 percent of your business. Regional competitions were held in Chicago, San Diego, Boston and New York along with one online competition. Out of the thousands of submissions, 6 were chosen to compete in each area, asked to present a 2-minute pitch and answer questions from the panel of judges. The small businesses then received immediate feedback about their pitch from the judges to help them focus their presentation. One or two businesses moved on to the final round where they pitched again, hopefully using the feedback to fine-tune their presentation.

I was honored and privileged to be a judge in the New York panel alongside Chef David Burke, Jonathan Butler (Co-Founder Berg’n, Brooklyn Flea, Smorgasburg), John Holl (All About Beer Magazine), Michael Stinchcomb (Executive Director, and, of course, Jim Koch. We listened to 6 business owners, all passionate, intelligent and dedicated. And last Thursday in NYC, chickpea snack company Chic-a-peas was selected as the winner of the competition, receiving a $10,000 grant and a year of extensive mentorship from Samuel Adams (the billion dollar beer company, not the dead American revolutionary). The runner-up was Aveyo, an avocado mayonnaise company from Boston. After the winner was announced, I spoke to Jim Koch about the program.

Judges discussing the pitches in NYC

Picking a winner must have been so difficult.
It was such a challenge. Everyone had a really delicious product and a lot of passion and energy. But we had to pick one winner when you want to help all of them. The great thing about the final round, though, is that the businesses really hit their two minutes and were really polished. In the end, there are really no bad decisions here. Chick-a-peas are going to be able to benefit from the $10,000 and some coaching. And even just a little bit of the right advice can make a big difference.

Was the need for advice what first inspired you to create this competition?
When I started Sam Adams, there were so many things I had never done. One of them was as simple as paying my co-founder Rhonda [Kallman]. I couldn’t figure it out. FICA, unemployment insurance, workers' comp. How do I do that? Do I go to the state? Do I do the forms myself? I figured I would just ignore it and write her a check for the gross. My thought was if I go broke, the government won’t care and I can then fix the mess — as long as I stay out of jail. I happened to mention this to a bar owner one day and he laughed. He told me that there were services that take care of all of this. I was floored.

So, you don’t need a mentoring relationship that goes on for years. There can be an incredible amount of value in just 20 minutes of advice from someone who has done something before.

How did the Pitch Room evolve?
Through the coaching we were providing, we kept seeing people who were on the verge of really taking off. The pitch room was to find them and help them get to the next level. From there, the coaching and counseling gives them the extra push and creativity to really make a dent. The next step is then actually grinding it out and getting costs down.

Why a $10,000 grant?
Well, we are operating in the base 10 system, which is a facetious way of saying that it is a little arbitrary but probably the right amount for someone to make a difference.

Where there any challenges launching the program?
Brewing the American Dream has been around for 7 years and it took those 7 years to turn into something concrete. We had to figure out how to actually hold the competitions, how to get the word out, how to get the loans cost effectively and figure out who would actually use this program. We put a prototype out there and for the last few years we have tested and refined.

Two minutes to pitch your livelihood seems like a huge challenge.
It makes business owners think clearly and concisely. If you can’t explain what your company is about in two minutes, then you don’t know what you are doing.

One of the most critical aspects of the Pitch Room competition is the speed-coaching sessions that follow. Small businesses who are not competing can sign up to sit with an established business owner with expertise in a specific field and get advice.
That’s right. The technique of speed coaching came out of realizing that 20 minutes of advice on the exact topic where there may be issues from someone who has been there and done that could make a huge difference.

How would you like to see the program grow?
More and more businesses. We started by giving about 40 loans a year and now we do several hundred. I want to be able to bring more speed coaching events and, of course, more micro loans. We are constantly looking for other ways to help small businesses and finding new ways to deliver coaching and counseling. Soon we will make a portion of mentoring available online.

When you are a small business, you are a fragile creature and you can’t screw up or it will take you under. My sense is that these companies need the ability to make good decisions. Hiring good people, training them and then improving on their product while being attentive to their customer. That’s a recipe for success.

Speed coaching sessions in NYC