The opportunity to pitch in Silicon Valley is a coveted one for entrepreneurs all over the world. With an estimated $275 billion in annual output, it’s home to billionaires backing tech giants and fast-scaling startups.
But despite these impressive numbers, women-led companies received just three per cent of venture capital funding in 2019, according to a recent Crunchbase report. The SoGal Global Pitch Competition, held this past week in Silicon Valley, is on a mission to change this by providing better support to women and diverse entrepreneurs.
After winning the Ottawa regional round, startups Welbi, founded by Elizabeth Audette-Bourdeau, and Thawrih, founded by Sarah Abood, were invited to the final round to pitch to top-tier VCs for over US$600,000 in investment. Representatives from our local SoGal chapter were along for the ride to cheer on our Ottawa hopefuls.
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To get to this final stage, Audette-Bourdeau and Abood had been selected from a crop of 1,700 applications across 25 regional rounds, making these Ottawa-based entrepreneurs two of 60 global founders vying for the big win.
Following two days of educational programming with industry leaders, it was time for the pitch competition itself. With hundreds in the audience watching the founders share their businesses, both Audette-Bourdeau and Abood each took the stage with confidence in their pitches.
First up was Abood. Thawrih addresses a gap in the market with a social impact. The company developes activewear aimed at Sikh and Muslim athletes, crafting traditionally-heavy cloth hijabs and turbans from more breathable materials.
“When I was a personal trainer, my clients would constantly complain about what was available [as sportswear],” Abood said during her pitch. “They could never find the right hijab or turban to fit their needs.”
Thawrih’s products are handmade in Ottawa, providing employment opportunities to Canadian newcomers in the city. Thawrih aims to empower newcomer women to enter sustainable employment in the Canadian labour force, provide for their families and support their integration. “At Thawrih, we believe everyone should be comfortable and confident owning [their] skin,” Abood said.
Follwing her was Audette-Bourdeau. Welbi is a platform improving the quality of life for seniors living in residences by automating wellness programming, freeing staff to improve the quality of life for seniors. By reducing social isolation for this population, Welbi helps the community foster better relationships and communication between staff, families and residents. The company has been around for a few years now, but was named one of Techopia’s tech firms to watch in 2020.
And why should investors care? “Already with our platform, we’ve had amazing results,” Audette-Bourdeau said during her pitch. “We are reducing the administrative time by 25 hours per month. That’s 25 hours now spent with the residents making sure that they’re happy and having a great time, instead of spending it in front of their desk. We are keeping the recreation teams on track with all their assessments and we’re doing analysis of all the data that is entered onto our platform. Then we’re making recommendations as to how they can improve the life of their residents.”
Audette-Bourdeau said Welbi’s potential market is in the billions, considering the number of retirement residences across North America alone. With baby boomers entering retirement in the next ten years, those figures are expected to double in the coming decade.
“This year has been very exciting! We’ve been working with the largest retirement home group in Canada — second largest in North America — Revera, through their Innovators in Aging program, and we’re set to scale to 265 homes in 2020. Our objective for the year is 500 — but obviously, we will try to go higher to have a larger impact,” Audette-Bourdeau said, driving her point home.
After an hour of deliberation, the judges came back with their verdict: Welbi was one of 11 winners, receiving US$25,000 in investments from SoGal Ventures.
“It’s an honour to be one of the 11 winning startups, and to represent Canada at the largest global pitch competition for diverse entrepreneurship,” said Audette-Bourdeau after Welbi’s victory. “It’s been amazing to meet all these female founders doing incredible work around the world. Each one of them is changing people’s lives, and SoGal Ventures is doing important work by investing in them. This is what creates a sustainable ecosystem for women founders.”
Though she wasn’t among the finalists, Abood said she took plenty of value away from her trip to California.
“I was really inspired by everyone that we met here — people had some crazy ideas from creating menstrual pads in Africa to helping stop breast cancer. It’s been really inspiring.”
SoGal Ottawa continues in the months ahead under new leadership, with team behind Nurtured Life, an Ottawa startup focused on at-home wellness services, carrying the torch forward.