Penn State senior gains entrepreneurial experience with ‘Shark Tank’ startup

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — When Penn State hospitality management senior Samantha Berk first began working for the company Nightcap, she wasn’t looking for a job. Now, as the head of the company’s university ambassador program, Berk is seeing what life is like on the inside of a company recently featured on “Shark Tank” and seeing surging sales.

Nightcap was featured in the Feb. 5 episode of “Shark Tank,” ABC’s long-running and award-winning reality show that gives contestants the opportunity to pitch their ideas to a panel of investor “sharks,” who can decide whether to invest in the company. Nightcap’s product is a scrunchie with a hidden pocket that contains a cover that can be stretched over a drink to deter drink spiking.

The company was founded by Shirah Benarde, of West Palm Beach, Florida, when she was 16 years old. Benarde said the idea first came to her in a dream after she heard a story from a friend who went to college and had her drink spiked. As she told the “Shark Tank” investors, the first prototype was made from her mother’s pantyhose.

Benarde teamed up with her brother, Michael, then a 21-year-old college student, to start the company. Their first investment came from their parents, and they raised more through crowdfunding and pitch competitions before presenting in “Shark Tank.”

Berk said she came across Nightcap’s product herself and became interested in the company because of its mission to discourage drink-spiking in a practical, affordable way. She then reached out to see if Nightcap had a college ambassadors program. It did, and Berk joined three others in similar roles at other universities.

“By doing this, I wasn’t expecting to make money, make commission or have a real job,” Berk said. “I genuinely wanted to get this out to people at Penn State University.”

Berk said her sales were strong and she started reporting back to Nightcap with her strategies. Her success eventually secured her a position as the college ambassador coordinator, overseeing 10 ambassadors at different universities who communicate through GroupMe and Facebook to share strategies and promote collaboration.

Slowly, Nightcap’s founders and the ambassadors grew their sales and established their brand. After successes in smaller pitch competitions, the Benarde siblings found themselves in front of the sharks on national TV, explaining how their sales grew as they pulled together their digital marketing efforts.

“I love this,” said Lori Greiner, “Shark Tank” investor and entrepreneur during the Feb. 5 pitch. “I don’t think that I have ever seen a product come into the ‘Shark Tank’ that resonated to me more deeply in a social mission way as this. I am worried constantly for young women, where women are getting their drinks drugged, they’re getting assaulted.”

Greiner then offered the siblings $60,000 for a 25% stake in the company, a 5% larger stake than the two had asked for, and they accepted. Now, according to Michael Benarde, Nightcap is seeing a surge in interest from retail stores and organizations. Berk said its sales skyrocketed the weekend after the episode aired.

In addition to her hospitality management studies, Berk is also interested in business (which she minoring in), marketing and entrepreneurship. This semester she is taking the course ENGR 425: New Venture Creation, taught by Jamey Darnell, clinical assistant professor of entrepreneurship.

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During the slower pace of the pandemic, Berk said she’s had a lot of time to think over ideas and business ventures as she continues to be an ambassador for Nightcap. She’s also learned a lot while being a part of the business fraternity Delta Sigma Pi, which she credited with helping her build the skills necessary to be a leader and to effectively communicate.

“The reason that was the organization I knew I wanted to join upon coming to Penn State was to be surrounded by like-minded individuals,” Berk said. “Those who had a drive, those who were more into collaboration over competition. And I found that to really hold true.”

Berk doesn’t appear to be one for idleness. In addition to finishing the nine credits for graduation and the time put into Nightcap, she is a yacht hostess, server and house-sitter in her native Orange County, California. With Berk’s graduation approaching in May, she said she is looking for opportunities, but plans on staying with Nightcap for as long as it will have her.

Students interested in learning more about entrepreneurship can consider enrolling in the entrepreneurship and innovation intercollege minor (ENTI), part of the Center for Penn State Student Entrepreneurship.


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