Pitchfest: Accelerating Women-Owned Businesses | Where Are They Now?
Applications for Pitchfest 2018 closed at midnight on March 30. More than 35 entrepreneurs applied, and seven will be selected to pitch their business plan in front of a judging panel at Outdoor Retailer on July 22.
Selected finalists will receive eight weeks of intensive mentorship from private equity executives who volunteer their time to support the finalists in focusing and articulating vision and business plans, refining financial models, and preparing their pitches. These finalists will join the 26 businesswomen alumnae of Pitchfest past, including Gloria Hwang and Emily Nielson.
Hwang and Nielson pitched their respective businesses during Pitchfest 2017. Hwang founded Thousand, a designer bike helmet company that recently launched in REI Co-Op stores around the country, including REI flagship stores in Seattle, Denver, and New York. Nielson co-founded Dirty Gourmet, an outdoor cooking blog-turned-cookbook published by Mountaineers Books. Dirty Gourmet also has contracts with REI and Subaru and will embark on a sponsored 2018 book tour.
Both Hwang and Nielson credit Pitchfest as an accelerator of their company growth through mentorship and business-plan refinement.
What are the top three opportunities that arose as a result of Pitchfest?
Hwang: 1) Partnership with REI. Having the SVP of Merchandising at REI on the judging panel made the difference. She invited us to come to Seattle to meet with the buyers at REI; 2) Introductions. Jill Layfield, the CEO of Tamara Mellon and a Pitchfest judge, introduced me to a former CEO in the bike industry who recently signed on to our Board of Advisors; 3) The network of women in the outdoors. I honestly love this one most. Prior to Camber Outdoors, I barely knew any women in the bike or outdoor industry.
Nielson: 1) Mentorship. This helped us create a focused business model. We have multiple opportunities that can take us in different directions—event space, media, and product (cookbook). We decided that events would be our main business and that everything else would be a support; 2) Exposure. We found it through invitations to OR events, speaking with judges, and meeting other entrepreneurs. We’re well known now, and Pitchfest accelerated that; 3) Realized potential. The biggest opportunity is that our book will be sold in all REI retail stores.
How did your mentor help you with your business plan and pitch?
Hwang: Gregg Bagni spent many years in the bike industry and in private equity. He helped me understand and navigate the bike industry and helped me take a step back and look at the business. Things I thought were my competitive advantages were not. He also helped answer questions about distribution and path. The advice he shared with me eight months ago, I’m still considering now.
“Before I met her, I saw her product. I thought it was cool in the commodity market. I know the bike space enough to be dangerous, so thought I might be able to help. I met her on Skype and thought ‘She’s the real deal: Smart and scrappy.’ There’s a phrase learned a while ago ‘energy contains information’ and vice versa. She has this energy that contains information.” —Gregg Bagni, White Road Investments; Pitchfest 2017 mentor
Nielson: The most interesting conversation we had with Ben Rifkin was that he told us to think about what kind of lifestyle business we were trying to build. We’re a mission-based business. We’re in it for what this business can contribute to the world. We were excited when he told us that we didn’t have to be larger than we needed to be. He gave validation to the direction we wanted to go. That was helpful because we could spend the season and year planning a focused 2018. Now we’re executing it more efficiently. Sometimes it’s hard to have the confidence that you chose correctly, but he helped us feel secure in our approach.
“With Emily and her team, I asked the question ‘What do you want to be when you grow up?’ Dirty Gourmet was green when I met them. They were building a company out of a passion, not out of business necessity. There’s clearly a business case, but for them, it wasn’t do or die. When I started to get to know them and their thoughts on the business, I could tell right away the areas in which they needed advice. By participating as a mentor, I hope to ensure a business’ success—give them a better chance of succeeding by avoiding common pitfalls.” —Ben Rifkin, Partner, Royal Street Ventures; Pitchfest 2017 mentor
Funded in part by The REI Foundation’s Mary Anderson Legacy Grant, Camber Outdoors launched Pitchfest in 2015. The program has been supported through annual sponsorship; Perkins Coie and Backcountry.com were the Pitchfest 2017 sponsors. Pitchfest continues to support and accelerate women’s leadership and participation in the outdoors, providing the opportunity for women founders to live-pitch their business plans at Outdoor Retailer.
“Pitchfest was a huge help in progressing our business—without it, we may still be floundering and trying to spread our time out across all of the opportunities that passively come to us,” Nielson said. “Pitchfest and the mentorship program gave us focus so we knew where to spend our time and effort to actively attract business in the right direction, and it gave us the audience to get our name out to the businesses in the outdoor industry that we wanted to work with. It is paying off and we are growing faster than ever.”
Pitchfest 2018 finalists and mentors will be announced in May.