National pitch competition puts women-led KC social ventures in spotlight

HI-HERImpact, a national effort for promoting female entrepreneurs, turns its focus to Kansas City again this week. The HI-HERImpact experience comes in two parts. First was a virtual entrepreneurship summit in June, during which entrepreneurs, investors and ecosystem builders mainly from the greater Kansas City area gathered to network and attend seminars about entrepreneurship. Next is a pitch competition that will be held on Zoom this Thursday.

The competition finalists will deliver their pitches live, and winners will be awarded a share of $50,000 in prizes.

HI-HERImpact is powered by the Ford Motor Company Fund, the philanthropic arm of Ford Motor Company, and 1863 Ventures, an accelerator and business development program based in the nation’s capital. The goal of 1863 Ventures is to help new minority entrepreneurs across the country.

Yisel Cabrera, the government and community relations manager at Ford, has been a program leader since its genesis. The program started in 2017 to address disparities in venture capital for female-led startups. Crunchbase reports that in 2020, just 2.3% of global venture capital dollars went to startups with female-only founding teams, a decrease from 2019.

Hear more: The Speaking Startup podcast covers the HI-HERImpact program

The eight finalists pitching Thursday vary widely, from technology startups to clothing and homeware brands. Also on the list are education programs, an arts and crafts studio, allergy-friendly vegan snacks and more. All of the contestants share the desire to become a profitable social enterprise.

Missouri Business Alert interviewed Cabrera and Melissa Bradley, the founder and managing partner of 1863 Ventures, to learn more about HI-HERImpact and what it means for the women entrepreneurs of Kansas City.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Missouri Business Alert: Tell us about the Ford Fund and the story behind starting HI-HERImpact.

Yisel Cabrera: The Ford Fund is the philanthropic arm of the Ford Motor Company, and our mission really is to strengthen communities and help make people’s lives better. And so we knew that women traditionally have experienced more challenges as business owners, and that they are really the engine of a lot of communities’ economic success. And we wanted to help bridge that gap. Women entrepreneurs do not receive as many investments as their male counterparts, especially women of color. So we developed this program to help women entrepreneurs — especially women social entrepreneurs — to provide them with not just the capital, through the business grants they need to start and grow their businesses, but also the coaching, the mentoring and the support to make sure that they’re successful.

MBA: You said you especially want to help social entrepreneurs and that is who the pitch competition is specifically for. How do you define a social entrepreneur?

YC: We define a social entrepreneur as someone who has a for-profit business, and they need to be making money, but they’re very intentional about making a social impact with their business. And that can be anything from making sure that they are hiring minorities or creating opportunities for groups that have been under-represented with their business or their service or whatever product that they provide. But the key there is that they have to be intentional. This social component has to be baked into their business model.

MBA: How are the winners decided?

Melissa Bradley: The best part is they’re decided by judges. So there’ll be members of the Kansas City business ecosystem, members of our advisory council, as well as representatives from Ford Motor Company Fund. So I’m excited to say that there’ll be local folks helping to pick local businesses.

And the beauty is that this year in Kansas City, we’re also gonna have an audience award, so not only will the judges get to pick, but folks who tuned in will have an opportunity to be able to vote, which is awesome.

MBA: What social enterprises have you seen really competitive pitches for this year? Are there any Kansas City-based trends?

MB: I would say compelling folks who are doing things in the solar space, who’ve had great traction in the Kansas City region, and now looking to go national. We have folks who are developing sustainable products in the areas of food and the like, using eco-friendly inputs and developing eco-friendly outputs.

MBA: Why do you think women entrepreneurs obtain less venture capital?

MB: I’d say the biggest thing is just bias, right? I think that as a former and current venture capitalist, I would say there are not a lot of women. And there are not a lot of people of color in this space.

I think the other piece too, which has been great about HERImpact, is that a lot of our companies are not tech companies. And so, you know, venture capital tends to be laser-focused on technology. Unfortunately, there is a bias in venture capital to tech companies. So if that’s not your business, if you’re a female social entrepreneur, you’ve got a double whammy against you.

YC: I think for women social entrepreneurs especially, a lot of folks don’t understand that they can still be profitable while making a social impact. We’re working really hard to try to dispel that myth that social impact businesses cannot turn a profit when, in fact, many of them are making a profit and doing very well.

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