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Startup Competition Taps the Power Of Community

A group of entrepreneurs, policymakers, fund managers and curious listeners synced online from across the globe to attend an inaugural Shark-Tank-type of competition.

Ten startups pitched in front of the audience, with concepts from beauty on demand to technology startups, one winner took home a combined $10,000 in credit to use to scale a startup.

The winning company, called Black Girl MATHgic sells subscription boxes to help Black girls curate math experiences. Founded by female founder and chief executive Brittany Rhodes, she plans to use the fresh funding to expand her services into the male minority demographic.

The runner-up’s were, mobile app ChargerHelp, which enables on-demand repair of electric vehicle charging stations and Green Tools maker of a biodegradable nail toolkit.

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The event marked the start of a new startup organization, Innovations City, which was created by founder and CEO Vilavanh Sanginthirath in 2018. Concerned overt the disproportionate lack of access to capital, support, and networking, Sanginthirath sought to build a community through technology to bridge the gap between minority funding. 

“Ninety percent of women-owned businesses are started by women of color, they account for less than 4 percent of the funding pool,” said Sanginthirath. “In order to diversify the innovative landscape, we had to do things differently, think differently and launch differently.”

Based on the success of its milestone event, there’s clearly an appetite for what Innovations City is offering. Today, Innovations City’s goal is to use data and analytics to challenge unconscious bias while paving a pathway for women and minorities to create generational financial sustainability.

Before COVID-19 hit, the team planned to launch a platform that would allow founders to upload a 90 second pitch to increase their visibility investment opportunities. However in March, that plan quickly changed as small businesses nationwide were affected by the coronavirus.

“It was very it was very drastic and a lot of people panicked,” said Sanginthirath. “My mind went to, how do we support people that are a needing it most right now? Not only small businesses, but also startups that are being left in limbo. So we quickly built out an entire platform within a month to support them.”

In two weeks, the company received applicants from 17 cities and 4 countries. The chosen finalists were able to take the screen and pitch to well-funded backers including investors Arlan Hamilton, Barbara Bickham, and entrepreneur Harold Hughes. 

In addition to the top-tier judges, Silvia Mah, director of the Center for Peace & Commerce with University of San Diego, who also participated in the event as a guest appearance. Mah wrote over email that she was very impressed with the team’s ability to put together this event despite the uncertain times.

“During COVID, Vilavanh found a way to pivot quickly into the virtual pitch competition space and on top of that, was able to access the top diverse venture capitalists, Hamilton and Bickham to judge,” said Mah. “She has brought hope to women of color, inspiration to our global community of equity advocates, and the opportunity to access real capital to early-stage startups.”

Innovations City’s ultimate goal is to help 1,000 diverse founders, this support includes connecting them to mentors and providing feedback, peer mentorship, and capital, among other resources. 

In addition, the company is in advanced talks with several organizations and entities to license its platform, many are interested in utilizing internal purposes for employees as well as hosting their own demo showcases, according to the company.

In the long-term, Sanginthirath hopes that Innovations City can serve as a bridge between the venture capital and angel investors on its platform, and underrepresented founders who are looking for funding.

Most importantly, the organizations aims to build a place where founders can support each other through the successes and struggles of building a startup. Headquartered downtown, the company employs 2 staffers and has 6 advisers on its board. 

“I believe this new case study of events really proved what we knew to be true. We were able to identify those diamonds in the rough that didn’t have access to resources or investment opportunities, and got to connect them to powerhouses like Arlan Hamilton,” said Sanginthirath. “It goes back to the power of community building that we’ve been able to do and it’s been an exciting journey. We’re looking forward to taking this to the next level.”

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