It was a pitch event designed to highlight diversity among ed-tech entrepreneurs, and in that, it certainly succeeded.

Eleven entrepreneurs, all from founding teams including women or people of color, made their cases for innovations that would help bring more real-world experience into classrooms, help teachers track the progress of special-needs students, or help underserved people find jobs, among others. During the day, the entrepreneurs pitched for an audience of experts who helped them fine-tune their presentations. At night, they pitched for $20,000 in startup capital. 

But the event, presented this spring by Village Capital and Citi Community Development in New York, also showed that sometimes, the gulf between entrepreneurs and their would-be advisors can be somewhat more difficult for diverse entrepreneurs to bridge.

During her practice session, entrepreneur Angelina Darrisaw made the case that many more millennials could have successful corporate careers if they got the coaching they need. Her company, C-Suite Coach, wants to deliver those services via mobile devices.

Darrisaw showed a few slides highlighting the lack of diversity among corporate leadership in America today. Her pie charts showed that four percent of S&P CEOs are female, and about one percent are black.

That slide, said one of the advisors in the audience, needs clarification. The data Darrisaw is presenting -- two pie charts, one showing race, and the other gender, could be better presented, he said. What about people who are, say, female and black? Where do they show up in the pie charts?

Darrisaw, a black woman who had been completely composed up until then, looked surprised. "It's one person," she said.

The mentor looked confused.

"It's just one person."

Silence.

"There is one black woman CEO at an S&P 500 company."

Opening Doors

Village Capital, a not-for-profit that uses a unique peer-selection method to guide investments, is trying to change the stats behind Darrisaw's pitch. As it stands now, women CEOs get just four percent of venture funding. African-Americans get just one percent, making it even harder to reach the ranks of the S&P 500 via entrepreneurship.

With help from Citi Community Development, Village Capital recently hosted three pitch competitions, each designed to show venture capitalists and other investors that they really are missing out by not investing in women and people of color. The first event took place in February in Miami and focused on financial technology; in March, a second event in San Francisco featured healthcare entrepreneurs. The most recent New York event showcased entrepreneurs in the ed-tech space.

"A lot of investors say they don't know where to find minority and women entrepreneurs," says Nasir Qadree, Village Capital's director of education. "I've sourced about 300 minority and women entrepreneurs that are very much investable."

The range of businesses presenting at the event showed just how much opportunity there is in educational technology. One company, Unifi Scholars, provides personal financial planning for to students. "Students leave scholarship money on the table, and they aren't particularly astute," says David Helene, the company's co-founder. Education Modified provides analytics to help teachers track student progress; Yenko helps non-traditional college students track their academic benchmarks, helping to ensure they graduate. Another startup, Alex, helps universities fill their classes with continuing-ed students -- and when Alana Matos, the company's creative director, was told her slides had too much information on them, she sat right down with her laptop and started deleting with a vengeance.

Another presenter, Vidcode, makes a learn-to-code platform for teens and tweens. But it wasn't until the end of the pitch that the audience learned the company was already working with the Girl Scouts and the New York Department of Education; Alexandra Diracles, the CEO, was told to move that up, pronto.

A Vote of Confidence

The winners of the pitch competition, held that evening, were NuSkool and Nepris, each of which received $10,000. Arguing that half of dropouts leave the educational system because their classes don't seem relevant to their lives, NuSkool bases its instructional materials on topics more likely to interest high school students. So if teachers want to teach kids about ecology and science, they can turn to a unit called "Life on Mars: How Close Are We?" For probability and statistics, NuSkool offers "What are Your Odds of Surviving a Zombie Apocalypse?" based on the television show Walking Dead. Nepris uses technology to make it easier for teachers to invite guest speakers into their classrooms, and claims the Susan and Michael Dell Foundation as a backer. 

While the companies that presented were all technically still in the seed stage, quite a few had already raised a decent sum of money or are engaged in testing with big-name companies. LaborX helps companies with high turnover do a better job in hiring, linking them to high need populations, and its founder, Yscaira Jimenez, says the company is currently running pilots with Google, Yelp, and Pandora. Story2, which provides a novel writing platform for students, and Admit.me, which connects prospective college students with those who can help them choose the right school, are already generating revenue.

Qadree has high hopes for all of them. He doesn't expect investment to immediately follow from the session, saying, "We all know it's difficult to make an actual investment in just over a day." But he says investors and mentors from an earlier session, focused on fintech and held in Miami, have stayed in touch, resulting in a few angel investments. "We want to encourage VCs to think outside the 20 miles outside their office," says Qadree. "We want to introduce them to a pipeline of entrepreneurs."

Published on: Jun 17, 2016