By Paul Schott Connecticut Post, Bridgeport
WWR Article Summary (tl;dr) Through the nationwide "UberPitch" program, female entrepreneurs in Connecticut had the chance to pitch their businesses to investors. However this pitch competition requires a little more flexibilty. All of the entrepreneurs have to make the case for their companies inside a moving Uber vehicle.
The entrepreneurs who gathered Wednesday in Stamford to pitch their businesses to potential investors were not looking to take over a room; they had to command the backseat.
In a new spin on business meet-ups, the 27 business leaders made their cases during 15-minute rides in Uber vehicles.
The mobile meetings make up a key part of Fueling the Growth with UberPitch, a new nationwide pitch competition for technology-focused and women-led companies organized by Westport-based business accelerator The Refinery, with support from Uber and the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation. Together, the three organizations have created a purse of $120,000 in grants.
The competition aims to tackle a persistent lack of access to funding for women entrepreneurs. Women-led startups received less than 3 percent of venture capital from 2011 to 2013, according to The Refinery co-founder Janis Collins.
"Women are not getting access to venture capital," said Jennifer Gabler, The Refinery's other co-founder. "And the reason they're not doing that is because they don't have the connections to get in the door to meet with venture investors. The whole point here was to put a woman entrepreneur in real time, face to face, with an investor and make those connections happen very immediately, right there, in that car."
Some of the entrepreneurs said they were initially skeptical about the premise of pitching their businesses in an Uber vehicle, but that they realized its value after participating.
"The investor is totally focused on you," said Ashwini Anburajan, founder and CEO of OpenUp, a New York City startup that recruits customers to share data with brands in exchange for rewards and incentives. "She is not looking at her email at the same time, not looking at what else is going on, which is what often can happen in a meeting. I think that focused attention was a positive thing."
Anbujaran landed a follow-up meeting with the investor with whom she met. Fellow New York City-based entrepreneur Jeanne Pinder said that she also struck up a rapport with the investor in her meeting.
"It's a great opportunity to expand your network," said Pinder, founder and CEO of Clear Health Costs, a New York City firm that aims to make the health care market more transparent by sharing prices for medical procedures and items. "I always figure you should talk to as many people as possible."
Investors said they were impressed by the quality of the pitches.
"Once the entrepreneur gets rolling, their enthusiasm really comes out, and I was zoning right in," said Tracey Killoren Chadwell, partner at the Greenwich-based 1843 Capital. "I hardly noticed I was in a car because you get so enrapt by their enthusiasm and their story and what they're doing."
Fueling the Growth attracted almost 300 applications for 150 pitch slots. In addition, Fueling the Growth also organized Uber meetings Wednesday in New Haven; Providence, R.I.; Washington, D.C. and Kansas City, Mo.
Uber officials said that the competition aligned with their company's values. The technology firm had already established a tradition of entrepreneur-investor meetings in their vehicles in cities around the world.
"You often hear these days that if you're able to pitch your company in the amount of time of an Uber ride, then you're good to go," said Britta Mulderrig, Uber Connecticut's head of marketing. "We really wanted to partner with The Refinery because it's important to highlight female empowerment. We're trying to get females in leadership positions and help companies that have females leading them."
Twenty semifinalists who participated in this week's pitches will be chosen to present Nov. 16 at the Stamford Innovation Center. A pitch-off featuring that group will determine the final 10. Three or four winners will share the $120,000 purse. The Innovation Center also served as the competition's base of operations on Wednesday.
"I think this is a great format because it forces the entrepreneur to be concise and direct," said Stamford Innovation Center Managing Partner Barry Schwimmer, one of the Stamford investors. "I like the relaxed atmosphere. ... It's great that they're locating it here."
A all-women team of drivers chauffeured the pitch sessions around the city. They said they gleaned a number of business insights from listening to the meetings.
"I was amazed by the fact that it was actually comprehensible in that time frame," said Soraya Nims-Berry, who drove Chadwell during the pitches. "Quite a few of them had multiple aspects of their businesses, but they were able to touch on everything. It didn't sound like a crazy, mismatched puzzle. Everything fit together."