These ties bind GCU students, 'Shark Tank' team

The Tough Apparel project meetings included (from left) founders Kevin Shoemaker and Skylar Bennett and GCU students Andi Dumaplin, Sydney Cooke, Izabelle Gurley, Natalie Lunsford, Maguire Dyson and Taylor Heet.

By Rick Vacek
GCU News Bureau

“Shark Tank” will have some extra viewers from Grand Canyon University when it airs at 7 p.m. Friday on ABC. They have a special tie to two of the contestants.

Colangelo College of Business instructor Mindy Weinstein and students from her Marketing 415 class last fall will be watching eagerly as Skylar Bennett and Kevin Shoemaker present their company, Tough Apparel, to the “sharks.”

Mindy Weinstein

The reason for the GCU appeal is simple. As part of class projects Weinstein regularly makes available to students, a half-dozen of them – all women – worked extensively with Bennett and Shoemaker to develop marketing and brand strategies for the new company, which specializes in tough, machine-washable ties and has added belts, socks and, right in step with the pandemic, face masks.

It was so meaningful on the GCU side, it was showcased at the Undergraduate Learning Community and Research Symposium last December.

It was so successful for the two entrepreneurs, Shoemaker said this about the experience:

“It was phenomenal. I had never been on campus or been very familiar with the school. I loved GCU. The students were nice. They were kind, just walking around campus. It was clean. It was upbeat. It has the religious aspect, which I love. I would much rather send my kids there in the long distant future.”

Bennett added, “Every single one that we talked to was just super genuine and just super nice and down to earth.”

They were blown away by more than the friendly welcome they received. They quickly learned that these GCU women – Izabelle Gurley, Andi Dumaplin, Sydney Cooke, Natalie Lunsford, Maguire Dyson and Taylor Heet – could talk very authoritatively about selling ties.

The students put together an advertising campaign that included a new slogan: “Confidence that looks good on you.”

Shoemaker and Bennett jumped for joy about their GCU experience.

They went to the Tough Apparel store in Gilbert, brought a bunch of ties and belts back to campus and showed them to their male friends, then shot photos of the GCU guys in various locations wearing the products.

“I wanted to go above and beyond what we do with PowerPoint lectures,” Gurley said.

They came up with email blasts, social media posts, Facebook ad campaigns and podcast advertisements.

They even brainstormed products that would sell to women, such as hair bands.

Who benefited more? Appropriately, it was a tie.

“The perfect match,” Weinstein said.

And there was another benefit: The six students became fast friends. 

"We just collaborated really well and are pretty creative people, and we wanted to create something we could use in a tangible way," said Dumaplin, who discovered yet another positive result of the project -- she was able to use it in her portfolio. The feedback was extremely positive. 

Bennett and Shoemaker conceived their business when they both encountered a frequent challenge for young fathers: Infants don’t check to see how Dad is dressed before they regurgitate their most recent feeding.

Their jobs as commercial real estate agents required that they wear ties, but slobber doesn’t mix well with silk. Tough Apparel was born not long after their children – they have three apiece.

A mutual friend set them up for a business lunch with Weinstein a couple of years ago, and when she got to the restaurant she wondered how she’d recognize them. Sure enough, they were the two guys wearing ties.

They wasted no time getting Weinstein’s attention when one of them poured soda over the other’s tie.

“I thought, ‘Wow, this is an interesting lunch,’” Weinstein recalled. “But it made an impression.”

When they told Weinstein how open they were to mentoring her students, she took them up on it – multiple times. “I wanted them to tell their story and be real about it,” said Weinstein, who believes the students “need to hear everything, not just the success part of things.”

So Tough Apparel was an easy choice when Weinstein contacted about a dozen companies who would receive consulting help from her students during the fall semester.

Shoemaker and Bennett on "Shark Tank" with their Tough Apparel display.

It’s an important aspect of the classroom experience all across GCU, and something a student told Weinstein this spring demonstrates why. Thanks to the project, he said, he felt like he finally got to “do marketing” and had a better understanding of it.

To make the experience that much more real world, she prefers to bring in startups – fledgling companies that could use the assistance – rather than have students invent marketing slogans that a behemoth like Nike or Apple will never see.

“She is crazy genuine and kind and wants to help, and she knew we’re a small startup and obviously needed the help,” Shoemaker said.

They might not be small much longer. While they couldn’t legally divulge how they did on “Shark Tank,” it’s a fact of television life that such an appearance can turn a fledgling startup into a fantastic success.

And if and when they do have more work, they intend to look to GCU for talent – they want to utilize these students before they go off on their own.

“The ones we’ve met are unbelievably capable and talented,” Bennett said, “and they need to be the ones going out and starting businesses because they have the talent and the ability and the connections to do it.”

The students should look to emulate another key trait that the Tough Apparel guys both exhibit: humility.

Bennett said standing in front of the "sharks" was "terrifying."

Bennett called the “Shark Tank” experience terrifying: "Even when you’re up there doing the pitch, you have to pinch yourself and realize that you are standing there on the carpet in front of the charts, actually going through the process and having the Q&A.”

Shoemaker jokes that they’re just “normal dudes."

"We’re dummies," he said.

“That sounds like them,” Weinstein said. “I think they’re so great, and I just want them to succeed. But I also believe in their brand.”

She was so elated by the Tough Apparel project, she made sure she told her spring semester classes all about it. Even her two kids have met Bennett and Shoemaker and think they’re great.

No wonder it will be a reservation for four in front of the TV on Friday night.

“It’s going to be a family affair – we’re all going to be watching it,” she said. “We’re already planning what we’re going to order out.”

They won’t be the only viewers with GCU ties.


Bennett and Shoemaker delivered a clever, spirited pitch that wowed the "Shark Tank" judges, but only Robert Herjavec was willing to invest. The Tough Apparel guys were seeking $100,000 for a 15% stake in the company, but his offer was $100,000 for a 35% stake -- and he wouldn't budge. After a bit of haggling, they took it.

Contact Rick Vacek at (602) 639-8203 or [email protected].


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