On Wednesday, 25 entrepreneurs from around the country are in Stamford, Connecticut, for a competition. By day's end, a few will walk share $135,000 to take their business to the next level. Their road to get there has been most unusual.
The women actually traveled that road in Uber cars. It's hard for women to get in front of investors. But last month female entrepreneurs in five cities were able to call special Ubers that arrived with an investor inside. They had 15 minutes to make their pitches. We rode along in a New Haven Uber to see what it takes to impress an investor.
The first female entrepreneur confesses that she is nervous. In the car, not only is the Uber driver a woman, the investor is as well. Cynthia Tseng from Hartford-based Fairview Capital sits in the back seat. Despite road construction and traffic outside, the conversation inside stays focused.
Tseng asks, “May I ask you your professional background?” The woman answers that she opted out of the workforce in 2009 when she had her daughter. She pitches an idea for a web-based company, but her experience isn't in technology. Tseng later explains that someone in the company will need a deep tech background.
“It was important to me that she knew a little bit about advertising tech, and publishing, and collecting data, because that’s money, that’s how entrepreneurs make money from their sites. They’re able to predict what the consumers are going to do next, what they want.”
We asked Tseng if she invests in the idea or the person. She says she looks for something in the person that's difficult to quantify. “Entrepreneurs have a certain temperament that most of us don’t possess. More than being persistent, there’s a humbleness that allows them to want to be better. It’s definitely down to the person.”
Ellen Matloff climbs into the car to pitch a company based on genetic testing. She has run a cancer genetic counseling program at Yale. She has worked on her start-up full-time for two years now. Tseng asks about the technology, prior funding and who makes up Matloff’s team. Then her mind skips ahead. “Do you think you’ll ever specialize in specific areas like women’s health, just to segment it even a little further?”
This pitch ends with Matloff having to unbuckle her seatbelt to reach for a business card. Spoiler alert here, Tseng later recommends Matloff as a semi-finalist for the pitch competition.
The next passenger is young, but Tseng appreciates she has a well-thought-through social mission with her product. The next woman holds a portable nebulizer in her lap. Tseng has one question: “So, what is your exit strategy? What’s your angle?”
The entrepreneurs get in the car with PowerPoints, prototypes and one even unveils a purple robot named Ven. “Ven is actually a desktop-sized expressive social robot that can use content that’s developed by teachers, reporting back on performance, but also giving fist bumps, high fives, you know, dances when they do something well.”
The final passenger reveals that she is on her second company. Tseng says she likes to see repeat entrepreneurs. “We also like to see entrepreneurs who didn’t make a lot of money the first time, but they got it. They got the joke, and are going back to fund and start new companies because they’re better for it.”
After three hours of circling New Haven, Tseng is ready for a break. Even so, she's energized by the women she met. “They have families, they have children and yet they still have these highflying degrees, and aspirations, and I am happy to report back to my partner who encouraged me to attend this event.”
The finalists pitch again on Wednesday at the Stamford Innovation Center. No Uber cars this time. They'll be in front of a row of judges in a big room. They'll announce the winner Wednesday night.
The competition is hosted by a business accelerator called the Refinery.