Americus takes a nibble out of Shark (Tank)

Published 11:00 am Thursday, July 28, 2016

The drive was quicker than usual, a blazing 2 ½ hours. Chalk it up to the time of day. Highway 19 heading north to Atlanta was deserted at 3:30 a.m., except for a single car heading to an audition at the Fox Theater in pursuit of the dreams of an entrepreneur. It had only been a week ago that Elena Carne’ and her business advisor, Tom Harrison, agreed to give it a shot — just enough time for Carne’ to sew together a few panels of material in her soon-to-be-famous style of women’s leggings. This specially designed pair, mostly black in her trademark, form-fitting Spandex blend, featured the logo of the day’s mission: a view looking up the New York City skyline. Along with hammerhead sharks swimming among the birds were the words “Shark Tank,” featuring the trademark shark bite out of the letter “k”.
They arrived precisely at 6 a.m., 42 minutes before the sun was commissioned to do the same. They knew that arriving two hours before the audition process began would help assure them of a shot. A shot for the dreams of a clothing designer. A shot for a toddler-aged company that had relocated to a town in Southwest Georgia via Venezuela and Miami. A shot for Americus to leap frog its reentry into the apparel industry after a decades-long absence. The phenomena known as Shark Tank has taken many dozens of small companies and made them instantly successful. This usually happens through the broad national exposure for which the show is famous, and an exchange of money for an equity stake in the company that makes the pitch to the Sharks. Throughout the show’s eight seasons, it has become clear that not all of the entrepreneurs win a Shark. But research uncovered the real odds of partnering with a Shark: only one in 222 make it to the show after numerous rounds of consideration. For Carne’ and her advisor, a five-minute audition would be round one.
Upon arrival, Carne’ and Harrison joined a line that had started forming at 11 p.m. the night before outside the front door of Atlanta’s version of the Rylander. With two hours of waiting ahead of them, initiating conversations with the crowd of small business owners, who were shooting for reality TV stardom and financial security, seemed to be a good time killer.
There was Sam from Myrtle Beach. A retiree, he closed his family’s Italian restaurant 10 years ago, but still sells his Big Sam’s Italian Salad Dressing and Marmalade. “All natural, no sugar or fat, 2.5 calories per serving BUT … the best part is the TASTE,” were the words crowded on the bottle label he carried with him. Harrison asked if he had any other products. He said no. Harrison wished him well but thought that his one product better be the best dressing ever produced if it was going to get the attention of a Shark. Then there was Jason from Washington, D.C., who seemed to be a friendly guy, but when Harrison asked him what his product was, he became aloof. Harrison concluded that Jason’s day job had to have been with some Federal government secret agency. The last Carne’ and Harrison saw of him, he was yoga-stretching on a pad laid across the dusty sidewalk. A man with a guitar case kickstand, a scantily dressed lady who Harrison speculated was selling a new version of a stripper pole, a woman with a full rack of the ugliest robes either Harrison or Carne’ had ever seen and a couple of guys hawking their homeopathic pain relief spray — whose product seemed to be the most promising — were all part of the waiting crowd.
At 8:15, Harrison and Carne’ began their slow, single-file walk into the Fox; Carne’ with her design portfolio and Harrison carrying a gold-colored, nude, lower-half female mannequin,  its bare bottom resting squarely on his head. Amused looks and the jokes accompanied him regarding his heavy-lifting responsibilities, but everyone was there to make an impression, one way or the other. Once inside, the group were led to a staging area. It was here that Harrison realized how many people had come from all over the country, and in particular Georgia, to pursue their dreams. The number of presenters totaled approximately 150, with numerous co-presenters, family members and one mannequin carrier.
Once settled, the group met Kristen, the leader of the four panel members who would hear the presentations. Rules were outlined and processes detailed, all controlled by a numbering system involving paper wristbands. Carne’s was white and numbered 449. Given that each presentation was supposed to last only a few precious minutes, and with four presentations going at the same time, the process would be quick and efficient.
While waiting their turn to enter the presentation room, Harrison had more conversations with future industrialists. A pair of guys had designed an umbrella holder for beach and tailgate coolers. It looked very simple, in concept, until the inventors disclosed that they had invested over $120,000 into patents and production moldings. There was a man with a full-sized toilet attached to a dolly. On his T-shirt read “Handy-Wipers.” Harrison wondered how the show’s producers would react to that one. Finally, there was a couple dressed in some cartoony-type costumes. Unsure of what they were selling, Harrison enjoyed a moment speculating about how they would make their pitches from within huge, mouth-hole-less head masks.
“Numbers 447, 448, 449 and 450, please proceed to the door for staging into the interview room.” Carne’ and Harrison hopped to their feet, now with Harrison’s half-girlfriend fully clothed in the Shark Tank legging Carne’ had created just the day before. They proceeded to the door and ultimately to their first hurdle: a presentation to Karen, one of the four interns charged with hearing dozens of life stories and business ideas. She greeted them with a smile as Carne’ introduced herself and Harrison plopped the mannequin onto the table which stood, metaphorically, between Carne’ and her dream to be a nationally successful women’s active wear business owner from Americus, Georgia.
At this stage, as explained by the leader of the Shark Tank interview team, they were looking for stories and personalities more so than breakthrough salad dressings or eco-friendly booty ribbon. Carne’ spoke to Karen about her experiences with starting her apparel career in Venezuela, then the upheaval when she was forced to leave her native country to avoid political persecution after a dictator took over her country’s government. After English lessons, three college degrees and proudly gaining her American citizenship, Carne’ started Tepuy in 2014. A financial crisis the next year motivated her, together with husband Rene and their three daughters, to move to Americus. Harrison commented that the couple and the city were both better for the move. He then spent two minutes detailing the business’s prospects, and Tepuy’s “hook” to catch a Shark. Elena proudly added that one of the hooks was the designation: “Designed and Handcrafted in Americus, Georgia,” included on all of her products.
A life-long dream for Carne’, hours of driving time, application work and legging designs were compressed into five minutes with a young intern. Carne’ had a big smile on her face after their pitch, as she shook her head, saying, “I can’t believe this is happening to someone like me, all the way from Venezuela.”
If Tepuy is selected for the next round, there will be a phone interview. After that, Harrison  and Carne’ will create and film a 10-minute video to submit to the producers of “Shark Tank.” That is where the fun will really begin. Carne’s backstory, her eye for design and color, visions of a whole community supporting this improbable chance for her — while highlighting the great city of Americus — could be used by the network if Carne’ and Tepuy are ultimately selected to make an appearance on the show. Though the odds of making the final cut are long, a trip to Los Angeles and a date with a Shark is an exciting goal for a family that deserves a life break in their favor. Even if Tepuy doesn’t make it in front of the Sharks, Carne’s dream still lives in her heart, on North Dudley Street and in the eyes of her community. Her vision of success has broadened, thanks to her experience swimming with Sharks.
Tepuy leggings and capris are locally sold in downtown Americus at Rustic Charm.
— Submitted by Tom Harrison