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Hiding in Plain Sight—Top Tech Startups You Didn’t See Coming

Fueling the Growth with #UberPITCH Showcase

Fueling the Growth with #UberPITCH Showcase

When I mention the statistic that less than 4% of venture funding goes to women-led companies, someone always says, “Maybe women aren’t starting as many high-growth potential companies as men,” or “Maybe the ones women start just aren’t as good.”  And, I wonder, do people really believe that nonsense? It must be unconscious bias kicking in.


If there is one thing we at The Refinery (an accelerator for women-led tech companies) have learned, it’s that there are more high quality, high-growth potential women-led tech companies than any of us suspected. And, they are solving both business and consumer problems.


Here’s our proof: The Refinery teamed up with Uber and the Kauffman Foundation to host a $100,000 Pitch Competition for the top women-led tech companies from 5 cities. In keeping with Steve Case’s Rise of the Rest, we focused on the emerging startup ecosystems of Kansas City, Baltimore, Stamford, New Haven, and Providence to uncover companies that investors may not already know about.


And, we created a winning scenario where selected companies in the qualifying round would get a chance to pitch one-on-one to an investor for 7 minutes, and then receive 7 minutes of feedback while riding in an Uber.


With grassroots marketing, using mostly word of mouth and our network, we launched the competition with a short application timeframe. Collaborators such as 37Angels, Pipeline Angels, Astia, MassChallenge and DreamIt Ventures helped us get the word out.


What happened was amazing. Within a 5-week window, we received over 300 applications from women-led tech companies in our selected cities and several from as far away as North Carolina and Texas. 


Limited by space in the 5 cities, we were only able to select the top 150 companies (less than half that applied) to pitch in the Uber qualifying round, leaving many more amazing companies behind.


Investors who had heard the pitches in the Ubers had the tough job of selecting the top 25 (again, leaving many qualified companies behind) to move on to a showcase and pitch-off for a position in the top ten spot. It was a near impossible task to pick those top 25 companies. As one of the investors riding in an Uber, I was faced with 4 out of the 6 companies I listened to being completely qualified and impressive. One of the other investors told us it was the most qualified group he had encountered in a “speed dating scenario.”


The showcase and pitch-off was an impressive collection of companies, and our judges during both the semi-finals and finals had the equally tough job of selecting the top companies for the cash awards. It was an exciting day and night in which every company that pitched seemed better than the one previous.


One our VC judges said, “I am so impressed by the quality of and prospects for the finalists. It is so encouraging to see these entrepreneurs embrace start-ups and create new businesses.”


Investors voted with their money. An attending investor told us the event far surpassed his expectations, and that he hoped to invest in several of the companies. One month later, the investor wired his investments to two of the top ten companies that pitched.


The moral of the story? Women are creating amazing, high-growth tech companies that solve the problems of businesses and consumers. They need to be uncovered, provided visibility, and in some cases, the guidance and confidence to ask for the money to get funded. Why aren’t they getting visibility? That’s for the next blog.


For more information on our amazing Fueling the Growth Pitch Competition Semi-Finalists, please see our website.