Kelly Vaysman ’24 delivers Team Pickleball Mania’s winning presentation at the Grand Challenges Pitch Competition on March 14.

Team Pickleball Mania wins pitch competition

Beekeeper training, fundraising for music education, and marketing a product that extends the shelf life of food were among the projects presented by student teams at the Grand Challenges Pitch Competition on March 14 at Cornell’s Biotechnology Building. The teams’ community partners received a total of $8,000.  

Top honors went to the students working with the alumna-owned Pickleball Mania, offering space in the Ithaca Mall to play the fastest growing racket sport in America. The company’s $2,500 prize money will be put toward building additional courts and expanding programming. 

The pitch competition is part of the Grand Challenges Program at the Charles H. Dyson School of Applied Economics and Management, which challenges students to apply business knowledge to address the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals. Of the 25 project teams, five were selected to compete in the final event. 

“This is really a chance to highlight not only the amazing work that our students are doing but also the incredibly impactful partners that they’ve worked with,” said Sarah Wolfolds, academic director of the Grand Challenges Program and assistant professor of strategy at the Cornell SC Johnson College of Business. 

Pickleball Mania’s owner, Lesa Carter, M.P.S. ’94, Ph.D. ’01, met with students at the beginning of the semester and told them she wanted to attract more families and young people to the sport. “The students – from the first time I met them – I knew they were going to do something good,” she said. “They just really captured Pickleball Mania.” 

“Immediately when we got to Pickleball Mania, seeing the diverse group of people – ages, backgrounds and athletic abilities – it became clear to us that it’s much more than the sport of pickleball,” said Tomer Poole-Dayan ’24, one of four students on the team. “It’s all about community, and pickleball is just a way to build it.” 

At the competition, the team argued that the sports center is not only helping to rejuvenate Ithaca’s struggling mall; it is also breaking down barriers in the world of sports. The students connected their proposal to the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals supporting good health, well-being and equity. 

“It’s a simple sport to learn that probably requires less athletic ability than other sports,” said team member Tyler Takahashi ’24. “There are also no historical exclusions – baseball for example, was a segregated sport. So we feel like a new sport with no preconceived notions, no judgments about it, is a great opportunity for people to play.” 

One judge, Millicent Ruffin, senior director of community impact and investment at Corning, said, “They started with a very aspirational goal of not just reclaiming malls but using this as a way to build community and address the social challenges they saw in society. This aspirational statement is not something you normally associate with pickleball.” 

The finalists in the competition included projects that span the globe, from Ithaca to South Africa. Team Local Village received $2,000 for a project to train a group of farmers in South Africa in beekeeping and honey production. Team Opus Ithaca was awarded $1,500 for a project to develop a series of marketing materials and create new fundraising events for music education. Team SoFresh received $1,000 to create a marketing strategy for a product that extends the shelf life of food. And Team Cooper Surgical presented a plan to improve marketing of an intrauterine contraceptive and will donate their prize money to the March of Dimes. 

“If you come together and continue the kind of things that you’re doing here, I feel very optimistic about the future of the world, despite all of the challenges that we have,” said Jinhua Zhao, the David J. Nolan Dean of the Dyson School. 

Sherrie Negrea is a freelancer for the Cornell SC Johnson College of Business. 

Media Contact

Adam Allington