June 5, 2018 / By Sheila Herrling, Senior Fellow
Last week I had the honor of serving as a judge in one of the hottest pitch competitions around – the Chivas Venture. What’s so cool about it? Let’s start with the prize money. $1 million dollars is available to competitors — $200,000 awarded by an online public vote before the competition even starts and another $50,000 awarded by live audience vote at the final showdown! Equally cool, this pitch competition is reserved for startups that are social enterprises, meaning they are building companies that pursue profit and purpose, something James and John Chivas built into their business from the beginning. And perhaps coolest of all, the incredible – and, incredibly diverse — talent on display from 27 countries across 5 continents. In many ways, this competition equalized the access to opportunity for the talent we know is equally distributed around the world. And continues to add to the growing evidence that what’s good for the world is good for the bottom line.
I arrived to join an incredible team of judges to take on an incredibly difficult job – narrowing the 27 finalists to a top 5 to compete for the remaining $750,000. It’s never easy; but here, the competition was so strong across such a variety of social impact areas, it was particularly hard. All 27 of these companies should get a hard look from impact investors!
So, hit the lights, cue the music, and before an absolutely electric audience of 3,000 people, the five finalists pitched their world changing businesses. Here’s how it all went down:
Change:Water Labs’ founder Diana Yousef of USA and The Picha Project’s Lim Yuet Kim of Malaysia each walked away with $50,000! These early stage startups are really exciting. Change: Water Labs is providing safe sanitation to those who don’t have access to it with a low-cost, portable toilet that uses a simple membrane to evaporate 95% of sewage without using any type of energy. And the Picha Project is empowering refugee families through a sustainable food delivery business. Think: UberEats by refugee chefs.
The third place award of $100,000 went to Braibook’s Eric Sicart of Spain. BraiBook is the first e-Reader for visually impaired people. This portable device stores and instantly translates any digital books or documents into braille, making it possible to read on the go. The product is ready for market and the prize money will accelerate mass production of the device. Eric also won the on-the-spot People’s Choice Award of $50,000.
Jalila Essaidi of the Netherlands took a $200,000 second place award with her groundbreaking company Mestic. Mestic is converting cow manure waste into bio-textiles, plastic and paper. Its patented technology aims to solve the excessive manure problem around the world, while unlocking new possibilities for making truly sustainable products – particularly for the fashion industry. I couldn’t resist advising Chivas to invest in “Chivas Gives a Sh*t” T-shirts as a marketing strategy!
And drumroll please……in first place was Cemal Ezel of the UK who took home $350,000 for his incredible company Change Please, which empowers the homeless community by training them to be baristas. Change Please embeds social and environmental impact all the way through its supply chain, from paying its baristas the London Living Wage and providing them housing within 10 days, to using biodegradable cups to sourcing its coffee from farms that support local communities in need.
Throughout these competitions, I’m always asked what advantaged the winners. To be fair, it’s always part art and part science, but here are a few notes from my judge’s book that, for me, are usually part of that degree of separation for the winners.
1. Love your problem more than your product. The role that data and technology are playing in solving the world’s most complex social challenges is really exciting. But sometimes founders fall more in love with the product they have created than the problem they are trying to solve for. That can get in the way of adapting based on feedback. Sometimes the solution that needs to be adapted or accelerated in your company isn’t the technology at all.
2. Measure what matters. If you’re competing as a social enterprise, come prepared with your impact metrics. It still surprises me how often in the question and answer period of a pitch competition, founders who identify as social entrepreneurs have not mastered, with measures, how they will track impact. It’s harder to measure social returns than it is to measure financial returns, but there are good measurement projects out there to demonstrate your intentionality and report against.
3. Go deep on social impact. As social enterprises and impact investing are starting to mainstream, companies that embed social and environmental impact throughout their value and supply chain have a leg up in my book. Fellow judge Kresse Wesling’s company Elvis and Kresse is a sterling example.
4. Eat “no” for breakfast. The life of an entrepreneur is hard; persistence and grit are essential qualities to success in the business. Those that embrace “no” as an opportunity to learn and improve are likely to thrive. No doesn’t mean never, it means not today. And you’re going to hear ‘no’ a lot in this business. Make sure to get as much feedback as you can from every judge, investor, or potential customer you encounter and rigorously consider how it could enhance your business.
5. It’s also about you. Remember that judges (and investors) are betting on the founder as much as the business. And, particularly, looking for founders who have strong convictions that are loosely held. In other words, a combination of vision/market-making ability alongside a nature of curiosity. How you handle questions tell judges a lot about your willingness to be open and listen to advice.
6. Have stage presence. Your energy on stage counts for a lot in these competitions. You need to inspire with your vision and your solution. Many times, the judges are seeing you and your business come to life from paper for the first time. And plenty of data out there shows there is often bias in the pitch competition process, so be compelling, have some crowd pleaser moments in your pitch, and wow the judges!
These are the highlights from my judge’s notebook. I hope they inspire all of you out there building businesses that are solving for the world’s most complex problems. And huge congratulations to all the Chivas Venture competitors — keep building and growing those companies – the world needs you!