Most of us are familiar with The Shark Tank, the ABC business pitch reality show that gave entrepreneurship a shot in the arm, fueling the desire in many to quit that staid job, launch their own business, and of course become millionaires. But let’s face it, only a select few will ever get the chance to face The Sharks, and frankly, it’s not for everyone. But clearly there is an appetite for business challenges as they have burgeoned in number, extending far beyond their traditional space on college campuses, with more serious participants competing for bigger prizes. So numerous are these business plan competitions there is even a website dedicated to tracking them.
But among the plethora of pitch events, few are free to enter and fewer still are targeted at meeting a specific need: fostering the development of products and services to improve options for today’s women and families. But like many of the entrepreneurs who start businesses, the U.S. Small Business Administration (SBA) saw a gap and filled it with InnovateHER, a business competition targeting innovations that meet three important criteria; they have a measurable impact on the lives of women and families (30%); show potential for commercialization (40%); and fill a need in the marketplace (30%).
“There’s always a conversation about getting women into investing. In the venture capital world, only 7% of investors are women, although we represent 80% of the purchasing power in this country,” says Erin Andrew, Director of the SBA’s Office of Women’s Business Ownership. “Through InnovateHER, we really wanted to elevate the conversation in two ways. Locally, we wanted to make sure the discussions around community investment in innovation are open to men and women. Secondly, we wanted to identify some products that make women’s lives better and, as a result, have a domino effect for families and society. We hope elevating the conversation will lead to wider debate and increased investment in both women business owners and technologies that impact women’s lives in a meaningful way.”
The spark of inspiration for InnovateHER came from the White House push to support working families along with an unusual source: the MIT Hackathon, “How Can We Make the Breast Pump NOT Suck?” It struck a chord that there was a real need to provide a forum for women business owners. Andrew wondered how the SBA could do something similar on a bigger platform and support innovative products that would improve women’s lives. SBA Administrator Maria Contreras-Sweet was immediately on board and drove the initiative forward. But time was of the essence. From the kernel of an idea in late fall 2014, the competition was launched within four short months.
“We’ve never done something like this before. There was a lot of learning that went into it.” Andrew explains. “We wanted to give our partners some time before the national competitions would be held in March for Women’s National History Month.”
But the competition’s quick turnaround was not without criticism. Many host organizations – universities, accelerators, clusters, scale-up communities, and SBA resource partners – received only two weeks’ notice to prepare and scrambled to launch local pitch challenges, the winners of which would enter a pot to be selected for the national event. As a result there was perhaps too much leeway in terms of how the competition rules were applied, with some participants presenting commercialized products versus those just presenting ideas.
Sophia Berman, a finalist and co-founder of Trusst Lingerie, a Pittsburgh-based startup applying technology and engineering to develop bras for larger-breasted women, felt the competition would have benefited from increased momentum building up to the event. “I only found out very late in the game and had about one week to prepare, but the timing worked for me because it gave me a window of time to focus on my deck. Without the deadline, it would have taken me a lot longer.” Another finalist and creator of Tiger Eye Security Sensor out of North Carolina, CJ Scarlet encourages the SBA to market through more partners in the future. “I got three days’ notice because I stumbled upon the competition. There are so many wonderful organizations out there who can spread the word about this.”
Andrew is all too aware of some of the challenges’ shortcomings, particularly the lack of standardization and short window allowing for broader marketing. “We didn’t want to micro-manage how the conversation happened on the ground. We laid out the rules but we wanted the competitions to be something that made sense for the local community. Should we decide to do this again, we probably would want to level the playing field some in terms of who is invited to pitch and how long that pitch would be, for example. With anything in life, you always look at how you can do it better next time.”
Despite the short time frame, the response has been phenomenal.
“Because participants literally had only two weeks to sign up and because I’m an overly optimistic person, I thought we’d get maybe 10 organizations to hold the competitions. Of the 125 organizations who expressed an interest in hosting, 74 went forward with 5–25 participants each. The 15 finalists were selected among the winners of the local challenges. Obviously this is a testament to the huge need for these conversations to happen,” Andrew points out.
Apart from the prize money ($15K, $10K, and $5K for 1st, 2nd and 3rd place, respectively, at InnovateHER provided by Microsoft), there are plenty of reasons to participate in business challenges. “For starters, it’s a great opportunity to hone your pitch, get invaluable feedback, and hear questions you haven’t addressed before,” says Scarlet. Candace Sparks, founder of BabyBedside, who has competed in a handful of pitch challenges, says the judges were instrumental in helping her better convey her company’s message. “The Mississippi panel gave me great insights on what to add and what to take out. I mulled over the advice, spit out the bones, and am confident going into the finals.” For Whitney Reeves, co-founder of BitzyBaby a juvenile safety product company in Maine, the pitch event was a great opportunity to connect with other local businesses offering products and services targeted at women and children. “Most of us stayed behind, exchanged cards and talked about ways we could support each other as a community.”
The connections participants can make with potential investors and even future mentors are invaluable, but perhaps the biggest payoff for participants is the recognition that they are on the right track.
“I’ve had a lot of small wins along the way in growing my business, but the chance to compete in InnovateHer is phenomenal validation!” says Lisa Crites of Cocoa Beach, Florida, owner of The Shower Shirt, a post-surgical, water-resistant garment designed to protect mastectomy while showering. “I know I’m helping people but it’s a very niche product; it’s very personal to me. But if patients needing this type of product believe what I’ve done is good, then it must be good.”
But business challenges are not without their critics. Often they cost money to enter and the prep time can be intense and distract from the more mundane but important aspects of developing a business. And for those who are not commercialized yet, there is a risk associated with disclosing too much.
Still, InnovateHER finalists were united in their consensus on the value of participating. All agreed that, even if you don’t win, you can use the feedback to grow the business. Owner of Hera Hub DC and a sponsor of the DC local pitch in April, Julia Westfall concurs: “The positive affirmation you receive can help you push through your doubts, improve your concept, and find the motivation to keep going even when it’s difficult. Many people give up on an idea too early because doubt creeps in. Competitions like InnovateHER help entrepreneurs get the critical feedback that can truly make a difference in their business.”
The 15 finalists will meet before a panel of judges in DC on 8 May – at the end of National Small Business Week – to give their final two-minute pitch. If telling stories that make emotional connections and letting the “real you” loose in the pitch is a tip to winning, then the judges will have their work cut out for them. Many of the finalists are emotionally invested in their products. Crites is a breast cancer survivor and sought out the type of product she has now produced after her mastectomy six years ago, and Scarlet, a rape survivor herself, is pitching a hands-free, voice-activated wearable device that is designed to help deter crime and violence.
Any advice from the finalists on preparing for the pitch? Berman says the best advice she would give anyone presenting is to remember “you know your business better than anyone so be confident. And it helps to picture everyone in their bras,” she adds with a laugh. Rozalynn Goodwin of Colombia, South Carolina, who created GaBBy double-face, double snap barrettes with her 8-year-old daughter Gabrielle, is preparing for the final by sitting down with people in the entrepreneur space to go over her pitch. “It’s important to hit it. You have a limited amount of time and investors are listening for specific things, so get feedback. It can be like facing a firing squad but even if it means you have to go back to the drawing board, don’t be afraid to reach out for help.”
Don’t be surprised to see some men pitching on the 8th. “We’re a federal agency and do not discriminate based on gender. Men can innovate and do great things for women, too. Because our end goal was to have a lasting impact on women’s lives, the gender of the individual is irrelevant,” Andrew explains. Reeves’ husband Seabren is her business partner in BitzyBaby and will do the pitch, which the couple normally does together, due to the short time allotted to each challenger.
Best of luck to the 15 finalists, and may the best woman (or man) win. And for all you aspiring business owners out there, don’t overlook the SBA’s extensive network of over 12,000 resource partners who are ready to help you take your ideas to the next level. As Andrew gently reminds us, “It’s great to do it during the pitch but any day of the week you can walk in to one of our Small Business Development Centers, SCORE chapters and Women’s Business Centers and get feedback and help.”
The SBA is assessing whether or not to make InnovateHER a regular event. If you want to see this challenge again in the future, send your feedback to WomenBusiness@SBA.gov. You can follow the competition at #InnovateHER, #DreamSmallBiz, or at @SBA.gov. You can sign up to attend the event for free or watch it live on May 8th when it’s streamed via the Washington Post and the SBA websites.