Logo: University of Southern California

Alumna Thrives in ABC's Shark Tank

Melissa Jawaharlal's start-up STEM Center USA wins hearts and funds on hit ABC TV show
By: Sam Corey
November 19, 2015 —
Sisters and STEM Center co-founders, Lavanya (left) and Melissa (right) Jawaharlal, present their Claremont-based start-up to the Shark Tank panel. (Photo courtesy of ABC/Adam Rose)

“$150K for 25 percent of the company.” Take it or leave it.

It was the night before Halloween, and that’s how the evening topped off for engineering sisters and co-founders of STEM Center USA, Melissa and Lavanya Jawaharlal.

Melissa, a USC Viterbi alumna, took center stage on ABC’s entrepreneurial reality hit show, “Shark Tank,” on Friday, October 30th in front of an audience of more than eight million viewers and a panel of some of the most recognizable venture capitalists on television.

The Jawaharlal sisters are on a mission to invigorate young students’ desire to pursue careers in engineering through experiential learning and interactive K-12 coursework.

The experience was both exciting and nerve-racking.

“It’s one thing to watch the show and see the contestants pitch their ideas to these investors, but it was a surreal experience, almost like a dream, to be the ones in the tank pitching our hearts out,” Melissa Jawaharlal said.

Melissa, a former university Trustee Scholar, graduated from USC Viterbi in 2013 with a B.S. in Mechanical Engineering. She sharpened her engineering skills as a research engineer at USC Viterbi's Information Sciences Institute (ISI), designing and developing burn wire deployment mechanisms for solar panels as well as antennas used in space rockets.

Looking back at her USC student experience, one thing she took away from the many STEM education programs USC Viterbi undertakes is that "the integration of STEM in America’s elementary and high school curriculum is essential in developing an economy for the 21st century."

“It’s vital that everyone has at least a basic technology foundation, regardless of what they grow up and become," Jawaharlal said. “Children shouldn’t be afraid of math and science.”

STEM Center USA develops interactive coursework that incorporates mathematics, electronics, computer technology, science, engineering, and the development of programming skills through their experiental learning.

The Jawaharlal sisters applied and were accepted to compete on ABC’s "Shark Tank."

The Shark Tank judges Kevin O'Leary (left) Lori Greiner (middle) and Robert Herjavec (right). (Photo courtesty of ABC/Adam Rose)

After a synchronized presentation, their charisma and vision caught the interest of investors Lori Greiner, known as the “Queen of QVC” and Chris Sacca, a billionaire Silicon Valley venture capitalist and angel investor in companies like Twitter, Uber, and Instagram.

The sisters found an initial champion in Sacca, who was so impressed with their mission and determination to bring more diversity into the technology field that is dominated by men, that he offered $150,000 for 25 percent ownership of the company.

Soon after, Greiner offered $150,000 for 20 percent ownership. A bidding war ensued with all the nerve twinging drama of reality TV. 

Sacca quickly responded with a modified offer of $150,000 for 22.5 percent.

Remaining calm under pressure, Melissa counter-offered with $200,000 for 20 percent. Greiner immediately accepted, and the sisters agreed to work with her.

“Lori gave us an offer with absolutely no hesitation and 200 percent belief in what we do,” Jawaharlal said at the conclusion of the show. “To work with a woman like Lori, who is such a strong role model in tech and sales, is a dream.”

Considering females only account for 18.1 percent of engineering bachelor degrees, according to the American Society for Engineering Education, Melissa said she is proud to be a part of an all-female engineering entrepreneurial team with her sister.

“We’re very proud of who we are, and we are working hard to inspire young girls about engineering and considering STEM field as a career. We want to help them follow their dreams and make them a reality,” Jawaharal said.

STEM Center USA is currently embarking on a Kickstarter campaign for a product called the Fiat Lux Wearbable Electronics Kit. "Fiat Lux" means let their be light, and is meant for students, artists and hobbyists to create their own wearable electronics without any formal background in engineering.

“It was a great experience to get on the show and to practice a pitch and prepare for a business meeting,” Jawaharal said. “But it isn’t the end goal, it’s part of a long process. We were very fortunate to appear on the show, but if we want to achieve our goal of changing STEM education, it doesn’t end there.”


Watch ABC's Shark Tank, Friday 10/30 episode

Learn more about STEM Center USA