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HERImpact Helps Women Entrepreneurs Crack Glass Ceiling

DC Startup Week 2019 revealed a different side of the District. Though it could be argued that a once promising startup culture bubbled and fizzed in DC over the past ten years, it appears our capital city has not abandoned innovation after all. Last week, it was on full display. Instead of playing host to pundits and politicos, venues from across the city turned into networking hubs for up and coming idea men – and women. 

On Wednesday, September 11, 10 female finalists, selected from more than 170 applicants in the HERImpact DC Pitch Competition, took to the stage at Eaton DC to make their case for support in five minutes or less. HERImpact, a joint initiative between the Ford Motor Company Fund and 1863 Ventures, focuses on a special subset of women-owned and run business ventures, driven by a mission to do social good. 

“We believe that investments in women have a multiplying effect. When you invest in a woman’s future, the benefits of that investment extend beyond her, to her children, family and community around her. Through HERImpact we are helping women social entrepreneurs use business for good so that they can change the world,” says Yisel Cabrera, Ford Motor Company Fund Community Relations Manager. 

Together with 1863 Ventures, Cabrera and the team at Ford reviewed applications for the pitch competition, narrowing the field to five “early stage” and five “growth stage” enterprises that seek to solve real community problems, have sustainable business models and focus on products or services people will pay for – all of whom were invited to make their sale during startup week.

The event space at Eaton DC was overflowing with audience members representing a range of interests  potential investors, supporters and fellow entrepreneur hopefuls taking notes and cheering on the finalists. Among the diverse set of ventures were financial education services for youth, healthy food access opportunities and a digital community organizing app. However, three winners struck the judges and the audience as above the rest. Growth-stage entrant Stephanie Cummings, founder of Please Assist Me, received the First Place award of $25,000, with her company that enables customers to achieve a work-life balance needed for a successful career. 

“The competition really validated the number of people that were overwhelmed by household management,” Cummings says. “I was overwhelmed by the number of people of all genders and ages who approached me after the competition to let me know how my story resonated with them. It further ignited my passion to continue to grow Please Assist Me to bring work-life balance to everyone.”

Dafero’s founder Lina Zdruli says that her $20,000 Second Place award is groundbreaking for her business. 

We now have the exact funds needed to buy the equipment and materials to ensure we can launch our new product before the start of the holiday season, which is when we take in about 65 percent of our yearly sales,” Zdruli says, whose company is grounded in providing no-sugar (but plenty of flavor!) dessert options.

And without a doubt, LaQuida Chancey (an early-stage participant) earned her $5,000 Audience Choice award. Her pitch for Smalltimore Homes was an energetic, inspiring appeal to help end homelessness.

“I learned the significance of and how to articulate my unique value proposition,” Chancey says. “Today in business, any entity should be able to clearly state their benefit, how they are solving needs of their target audience and what distinguishes them apart from everyone else.”

Women have been banging on the glass ceiling of business for a while now, and the cracks are starting to show. Thanks to programs like the HERImpact Pitch Competition, opportunities for female entrepreneurs are a little less out of reach and, unsurprisingly, the women seizing those opportunities are doing so while lifting others up along the way. 

To learn more about the HERImpact DC Pitch Competition and the winners from the event, click here.

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Courtney Sexton

Courtney Sexton is a New Jersey native who grew up between the Delaware River and the sandy Pine Barrens. She has called D.C. home for long enough to now be considered a “local”. She received her MFA from Sarah Lawrence College and is the co-founder of D.C. literary reading series and writing community, The Inner Loop. She listens to a lot of music and sometimes even tries to make it. She writes a good deal about places and human relationships to them, constantly exploring the intersections of nature and culture. Her dog, Rembrandt, features prominently in her life and work.