Invest in Her will select one entrepreneur, but it’s about more than cash

Invest in Her wants to give women-owned businesses in Western Pa. a fair shake.

Courtesy Invest in Her
Sarah Anne Hughes

Empowering underwear, customized portrait cookies and a back brace for people with Parkinson’s disease.

Three very different products from three different businesses that have at least one thing in common: They were all started by women.

Those Pittsburgh-area entrepreneurs, as well as three other female small-business owners, will participate Thursday in Invest in Her’s second pitch competition. At stake: thousands of dollars in grant money to take their businesses to the next level. But for Invest in Her’s founders, as well as women in Pittsburgh trying to get a business off the ground, there’s much more at stake.

Invest in Her began as an assignment for Coro Pittsburgh’s Women in Leadership program, co-founder Sam Hartzman told The Incline. The public-affairs leadership nonprofit tasked participants with developing a catalytic project that would affect women in Southwestern Pennsylvania, and a group of six found themselves focusing on women entrepreneurs.

There’s “a gap in how successful women-owned businesses are in the region,” Hartzman said.

The group — Hartzman, Marteen Garay, Brazitte Poole, Katie Stringent, Aster Teclay and Ellyse Williams — created Invest in Her, and their first all-women pitch competition took place in December 2015.

From six finalists, a panel of judges selected Lillian Rafson’s Pack Up + Go to win — even though the weekend-trip-planning company hadn’t launched, Hartzman said. Instead, the win was the “catalyst that pitched [Rafson] forward.” The company, now up and running, has since been covered by NBC News and Vogue.

On Thursday, six more women will compete for grants at a free, public event at Alloy 26. (Register to attend here.) The entrepreneurs will have three minutes to pitch, and a panel of judges — who aren’t involved in Invest in Her — will select a winner and two runner-ups to receive grants worth $5,000, $3,000 and $2,000, respectively. More than half of that money was crowdsourced.

The finalists are:

  • Adhithi Aji: Adrich, LLC, which sells “an intelligent packaging label for the CPG industry” called Replete.
  • Tamiah Bridgett: Diversame, Inc., which “creates tools with natural/afro textured, coiled and curly hair textures at the center of design.”
  • Jasmine Cho: Yummyholic, a custom cupcakes and cookies company.
  • Marissa Vogel: Calligramme, an “anti-consumerism and female empowerment” lingerie shop.
  • Courtney Williamson: AbiliLife, “a company dedicated to designing and developing products to improve the quality of life for patients with Parkinson’s and other neurodegenerative diseases.”
  • Monica Yope: Pop Craft, “a crafting workshop at your local bar where you show up, get crafty, and take home a really great project.”

During its first go-round last year, Hartzman said 40 women applied. “This was the only opportunity that existed that focused on them.”

While Invest in Her accepted ideas in the concept stage during the competition’s first go-round, more of this year’s applicants presented established businesses. From a field of 40 applicants, Invest in Her picked 12 women to interview before selecting the finalists.

The six finalists come from a “wide range of industries,” Hartzman said, and some of their creations were born from personal experiences. Courtney Williamson’s mother had Parkinson’s, which is why she founded a company that creates products for people with that and other neurodegenerative diseases.

“No one can deny that these businesses are great,” Hartzman said, but they also struggle to attract investors. That’s why Hartzman said she and the other co-founders want to build Invest in Her into an organization that can not only support these women but help them network.

The founders — the majority of whom are women of color — also want to set an example.

“Pittsburgh is trying to identify how to be more inclusive,” Hartzman said. “We represent that diversity … We want everyone to feel comfortable.”