This Team Won The $50K Top Prize In WashU Olin’s BIG IdeaBounce Pitch Fest

And the winner of the 2024 WashU Olin BIG IndeaBounce pitch contest is….

We started with some 120 student teams pitching their startup ideas from more than 65 universities and 14 countries.

They were narrowed down to 14 finalists who submitted two-minute-long video pitches after which a final three were invited to Washington University’s Olin Business School campus in St. Louis to pitch in a Shark Tank-like format before three judges. Their presentations and ideas were assessed by Maxine Clark, founder of Build-A-Bear, which has more than 500 retail outlets, and Akeem Shannon, founder and CEO of Flipstick and a SharkTank contender, and John A. Byrne, founder and editor-in-chief of Poets&Quants.


The winner of the $50,000 grand prize? ASL Aspire, an online educational platform that teaches STEM literacy to K-12 deaf and hard-of-hearing students and their teachers. ASL Aspire comes from an idea hatched by students from the University of Illinois’ Gies College of Business and WashU’s Olin School. CEO Mona Jawad, a PhD candidate in speech and hearing science has teamed up with Ayesha Kazi, who is pursuing a master’s in computer science and business management, as well as Gies College of Business finance major Hamnah Razzak and Depaul University finance major Manuel Jacobo to create a company that teaches STEM literacy to K-12 deaf students and their teachers through online games.

The two co-founders of the startup did an exceptional job in taking on a major challenge and expertly pitching their solution. “ASL Aspire is tackling an important issue,” says Doug Villhard, academic director for entrepreneurship at Washington University. “Hearing-impaired students shouldn’t be left out of STEM careers simply over the challenge of communicating complicated vocabulary. “Teaching students STEM concepts (along with their translators) paves the way for more students to enter STEM, which we desperately need. The $50,000 grand prize will go a long way to helping ASL Aspire go to market and engage as many students and schools as possible.”

Second prize and $5,000 went to the University of Michigan team behind MeetYourClass. CEO Blake Mischley, a computer science major at the Michigan, leads the team that is focused on creating stronger community for college students. By engaging applicants and students more deeply, Mischley’s startup team hopes to reduce social isolation among incoming freshmen and transfer students. “By fostering a sense of community and belonging, MeetYourClass plays a vital role in enhancing the overall university experience for students,” says Mischley.

2024 WashU Olin BIG IdeaBounce

ASL Aspire Co-Founders Mona Jawad and Ayesha Kazi accept the grand $50,000 prize at WashU Olin’s BIG IdeaBounce pitch fest


And third prize and $2,000 went to Sustain-A-Plate, an Olin Business School startup, which invented a way for grocery stores to alleviate food waste and to increase profit. Franklin Taylor, an MBA student who will graduate this May, led the team that includes computer science and finance major Tanvi Jammula, entrepreneurship major Kelsey Kloezeman, finance major Anna Larizza, and computer science masters student Jason Ti.

The Audience Choice award, given to a team that received the most votes from the Poets&Quants audience, went to Elcove, a Babson College team that has created a line of zero-waste and non-toxic home care products. The startup is the brainchild of co-founders Anastacia Yefimeko, a current undergraduate student who will graduate from Babson in 2025, and Anna Galonskaya, who possesses 25 years of experience in scaling ventures. The pair won a $1,000 prize.

But the unanimous choice of the three judges was ASL Aspire. In an inspiring display of innovation and passion, ASL Aspire clinched the top prize at the contest. Co-founders Jawad and Kazi, who both have roots in engineering disciplines, dazzled the judges and audience with their visionary project aimed at enhancing vocabulary acquisition for deaf students through gamified learning.

The project was born from personal experience and academic insight. Mona Jawad, the CEO of ASL Aspire, was inspired by her brother who has hearing loss. “He was my teacher, my mentor, and my friend growing up,” Jawad shared during her interview with Poets&Quants‘ Founder Byrne. Her academic journey in bioengineering and later in a speech and hearing science lab led her to ideate a digital tool that was more than just a dictionary—it was a dynamic educational resource.


The turning point came when Jawad partnered with Ayesha Kazi, a computer science student she met in a Women in Engineering program at the University of Illinois. Together, they transformed a research idea into a functional software program designed specifically for deaf students. The app integrates fun, interactivity, and education—qualities that the co-founders identified as crucial for engaging young learners.

One of the major hurdles they faced was ensuring that their project was developed with the deaf community, rather than merely for it. “The deaf community is so proud and protective of their beautiful language,” Jawad explained, emphasizing the importance of community involvement in the development process.

When asked about the entrepreneurial lifestyle, Jawad commented on the resilience needed to succeed. “If you can keep going after every setback, then you’re made for it,” she stated, underlining the perseverance necessary to navigate the ups and downs of startup life.


With the $50,000 prize, ASL Aspire plans to expand their reach to additional schools and double their impact. They currently serve 300 students across five pilot schools and aim to broaden their scope significantly. “We’ve never had a teacher say no to just trying it out,” said Kazi, highlighting the app’s positive reception.

Both co-founders acknowledged the crucial support from their families, who have roots in Iraq, Pakistan, and India. This support has been a backbone for their journey, providing not just moral but also enthusiastic encouragement.

As the interview concluded, Byrne praised their presentation skills and the clarity of their mission, confident that their project would continue to make significant strides in the education of deaf students.

ASL Aspire not only exemplifies the power of combining technology with empathy but also showcases how personal experiences can lead to transformative solutions that address real-world challenges. Their journey from an idea to a winning pitch at the BIG IdeaBounce contest is a testament to the impact of dedicated and socially aware innovation in the entrepreneurial landscape.

2024 WashU Olin BIG IdeaBounce

The three finalist teams in the 2024 WashU Olin BIG IdeaBounce competition with the judges and (second row behind the winners) Olin Dean Mike Mazzeo and Doug Villhard, academic director for entrepreneurship at Washington University


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