Four USC startups received a total of $125,000 in seed money at the second annual Social Venture Coaching Competition this spring. Hosted by USC Marshall’s Brittingham Social Enterprise Lab, the SVCC supports USC students, faculty and alumni in developing market-based solutions to the most pressing challenges in Los Angeles.
“The goal of this competition was both the coaching and the funding for the ideas that most impact the lives of people in Los Angeles, and we and the sponsoring foundations were really interested in poverty alleviation and homelessness,” said BSEL Executive Director Abby Fifer Mandell.
The winners of the 2020 Social Venture Coaching Competition are:
$50,000 — Gentefy builds strong local economies that unleash the untapped talent of millennial entrepreneurs by investing in people, places and programs that answer the demands of Latino communities.
$40,000 — AKALA uses AI to help students navigate the complicated journey to college by providing access to quality college admissions guidance.
$25,000 (special award for the venture that best responds to factors that can lead to homelessness) — Forage is a grocery shopping platform that helps SNAP recipients save time and maximize their grocery spend.
$10,000 (special award for an early-stage venture) — Prospoly Small Business Consulting offers underserved small businesses in marginalized communities affordable consulting services provided by skilled students and recent graduates.
The SVCC is the largest cash competition at USC. The event was sponsored by the Rose Hills and Specialty Family foundations. The Rose Hills Foundation supports a broad range of nonprofit organizations serving the people of Southern California in key areas of need, including education, social services, health, arts and culture, civic and community engagement, and recreation. Launched by Dr. James B. and Joan C. Peter, the Specialty Family Foundation seeks to alleviate the conditions that lead to persistent poverty.
How It Worked…Even Better Online
The competition opened in December to current students, faculty working with student teams, and alumni within seven years of graduation. Sixty-six teams from 13 schools across USC submitted proposals.
It was a very positive experience, and a real silver lining, to do this digitally.”—BSEL Executive Director Abby Fifer Mandell
The 19 semifinalists received six coaching sessions with Abby Fifer Mandell and the Small Business Development Center at Pasadena City College. They also had one-on-one and group coaching from members of the BSEL network and USC Marshall faculty.
After the COVID-19 lockdown, the final two coaching sessions were conducted online. This was really a blessing in disguise, Fifer Mandell said. “What we found actually was a lot of possibility. Being online allowed us to bring in people who may not have been able to participate in person. Each of our teams were comprised of between one and five entrepreneurs and a lot of them did not live in L.A. Suddenly, the move online allowed the entire team to participate in the coaching.”
The team feedback was enthusiastic. For instance, AKALA’s Perry Kalmus said, “We learned so much each week, and we were pushed to be better with some incredible guidance and advice. The user-centered design mindset has, to use a tech term, pivoted the way we think. We are excited to continue to employ it as we go forward.”
Seven team finalists pitched live to a voting panel of 25 on April 27. The judges included industry experts, social entrepreneurs, funders and nonprofit leaders. About 140 people watched that night on Zoom, and another 300 watched live on Facebook. Since then, a total of about 1,000 people have watched the teams pitch.
“That’s another thing that we were so grateful for,” Fifer Mandell said. “Without this technology, we would have had a hundred or two hundred people on campus for the event. Instead, all these entrepreneurs got to pitch live and have their boards and family watch them.
“The exposure that they have gotten has been tremendous,” she added. “All of the seven finalists and some of the semifinalists have had people reach out to them. They’ve been invited to participate in mentoring and coaching, offered investment opportunities and invitations to accelerators. It was a very positive experience, and a real silver lining, to do this digitally.”
The winners were announced live on Instagram, and four teams received funding. Going forward, the BSEL will work with those teams to help them grow, Fifer Mandell said.
“Part of what was so moving about this experience was watching through our coaching process how all of the teams responded to the very particular circumstances right now because, of course, COVID-19 poses particular, deep challenges for the most vulnerable people in Los Angeles,” Fifer Mandell said. “So each of them made pivots, took what they were learning in the coaching sessions and applied it to making some changes and generating some great ideas when it comes to serving the most vulnerable people in our population.
“It was a very timely competition, as it turned out.”