There’s a parking space, despite the rain, right outside Hibernian Hall the night of Pitch in the City, Roxbury’s first startup pitch event, in late March. “Some event,” I mutter to myself as I go inside.
In fact, the big hall on the 3rd floor is jammed with people. Coats cram the coat rack, and dozens of people line up for artisan pizza and salad from Haley House Bakery and Café, a neighborhood social enterprise that among other things provides jobs for ex-cons. The beer is Dot Ale 1630, the Dorchester brew from Percival Brewing Company, a local label whose founder, Filipe E. Oliveira, is pouring. Oliveira says he’s shipping 600 cases of beer every two months, brewed by a contract brewery. He wants to start his own brewery.
“Why aren’t you pitching?” I ask.
“That’s a good question,” he says.
Pitch in the City is a little bit of Cambridge, MA, in Dudley Square. The entrepreneurs who are pitching have startups mostly from Smarter in the City, Roxbury’s first high-tech accelerator and one of the nation’s few minority-focused accelerators. The other entrepreneurs have been through or are part of MassChallenge or Future Boston Alliance’s accelerator. They’ll pitch their companies to a panel of potential investors and advisors, led by Steve Rogers, a lecturer on entrepreneurial finance at his alma mater, Harvard Business School. Smarter in The City got started in 2014 and has funding from several foundations, the Small Business Administration, and Brightcove and Microsoft.
Among the “goodies” up for grabs: consulting advice, mentoring, a potential slot in Northeastern University’s accelerator and, possibly, an investment. The most tweeted company will get a $250 prize.
Sandra Casagrand, co-publisher of The Bay State Banner, which is sponsoring the event along with Northeastern, introduces Rogers and the other judges, who sit on the stage above the microphone where the pitches will be made. As the first founders walk up to make their pitch, she delays them for a moment. “I’ve always wanted to do this,” she says, “so let me say, Hello Sharks!”
The brinksmanship of “Shark Tank” will be lacking; no money or equity will exchange hands, at least this night. There will be direct questions, though. Rogers is particularly fond of “How will you make money?” and, sometimes, “How much revenue do you have?”
One of the pitchers is Toni Oloko, an 18-year old from Braintree. He got into the University of Pennsylvania but deferred for a year to start PracticeGigs, a smartphone app aimed initially at helping tennis players find practice partners, who can charge for their time. “We’ve had a lot of interest for doing the same thing in music, chess, other sports like soccer, golf, and lacrosse, even a weird thing like Super Mario Smash Bros. I got e-mail about that,” he says during his pitch. His app is about three weeks from launching.
Oloko may be 18, but he is not cowed by pitching. He is the only one to appeal to the crowd, saying, “If anyone likes this idea, please Tweet at us and give us a vote!”
There are moments that will not take place at most other accelerator pitch events. At one point, three large men approach the microphone. The smallest, in a sport coat and collared shirt, is flanked by two men in hoodies, one emblazoned with a menacing-looking logo of a gun sight and the words “KillerBoombox.com.” The man in the sport coat starts his pitch.
“I’m Darius McCroey, and these are my bodyguards.”
The crowd cracks up. In fact they’re his co-founders, Brandon Matthews and Greg Valentino Ball, and KillerBoombox.com aims to create a multicultural music and entertainment business focused initially on content.
While many of the businesses being pitched aim at minority communities, some do not. PracticeGigs, for one. True Moringa uses oils and food products sourced from the moringa tree, with production in Ghana, but marketed to anyone. Another, Civica, makes software to open up election data.
The last pitch comes from an entrepreneur trying to address one of high-tech’s glaring problems: why so few minorities work in the industry. Melissa James, CEO of Tech Connection, tells the judges that when she worked in recruiting at Google, “I recruited for underrepresented talent. I looked for diversity candidates.” She tells them most candidates didn’t have the right work experience. What frustrated her was that as a company representative, she couldn’t tell them the things she knew they needed to do to get hired there. So she started a company to help blacks, Hispanics, and women learn how to get high-tech jobs. She wants money to develop something like Khan Academy videos for high-tech minority jobseekers.
“What’s your revenue model?” Rogers asks. He gets James to tell him that she is charging about $100 an hour to do targeted job searches, and has made $30,000 since December.
After the panel grills her for a while, Rogers says, “I would tell you you were trying to climb up a hill with oil all over it. But what we’ve seen recently with Reverend Jackson and Intel means you have an opportunity to build this.” He’s referring to the public shamings of the high-tech industry led by Reverend Jesse Jackson, which have gotten companies like Facebook and Google to publish their diversity data, and to Intel’s announcement that it will spend $300 million to make its technical and management ranks more diverse.
James, whose company is arguably the least developed of any that were pitched, winds up the night’s big winner. She gets free consulting from both Rogers and from the African-American Student Union at Harvard Business School. Molly Gittens, founder of More Advertising, offers mentoring, as does Glynn Lloyd, CEO of CityFresh Foods and managing director of the Boston Impact Initiative. Aaron Green, who runs Professional Staffing Group and PSG Ventures, also offers mentoring and suggests he might want to invest. Northeastern University offers her legal services from its Community Business Clinic and space in its on-campus accelerator, IDEA.
Oloko gets an offer for mentoring from Lloyd, who plays tennis. He also wins the most-tweeted award.
He walks out of Hibernian Hall holding an envelope containing $250. In cash.
“Can you believe it?” he says as he steps into the rainy night. “They gave me cash. I’m not declaring this. The IRS will never know!”