Investing in Inclusion Pitch Competition

By Om Chitale

e’re Rapport Card, and we are disrupting interruption! With that, a team of 4 brilliant students — all women, in this case — pitch their business idea to a panel of investors, diversity & inclusion experts, startup founders, and a room full of passionate supporters. The room is silent, a few smiles and raised eyebrows during the most inspiring moments of the pitch. As the presentation concludes, the crowd erupts into applause, showing their appreciation for both the audacity of the idea and the commitment to workplace inclusion.

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Keynote Speaker: Julia Sze | Photo by Jim Block

That was the general theme across all 5 presentations that day at the inaugural Investing in Inclusion Pitch Competition, hosted by the Center for Equity, Gender, and Leadership (EGAL). It was the climax of a story that started 6 months prior, in Center Director, Kellie McElhaney’s Business Case for Investing in Women class. I suggested that Dr. McElhaney figure out a way to align innovation and inclusion, two values held in deep regard at the Haas School of Business, as a core offering for the burgeoning center. Ever the inspirational steward, Dr. McElhaney challenged me to “make it happen.” Great, I responded — let’s take this Winter break and next semester to plan it all out for next year. No, replied Kellie — pilot next semester.

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Judging Panel (left to right): Seren Pendleton-Knoll, Anisha Mudaliar, Michelle Kim, Claudine Emeott, Uriridiakoghene (Ulili) Onovakpuri | Photo by Jim Block

After the initial chuckle and realization that she was serious, I got to work. Quickly, I formed a team of 1st and 2nd year MBA students to take on the daunting task of planning and executing an entire pitch competition. They were inspired by the challenge and the opportunity to create a program that could highlight Berkeley Haas, the Center, and the student’s drive to create a more diverse and inclusive business world. As such, the competition had to be excellent. True to the Haas entrepreneurial ethic, though, they knew they had to use this pilot competition as exactly that — a pilot. They hoped, and secretly suspected, that they were tapping into a latent population of entrepreneurs who wanted to make the business world more diverse and inclusive. However, lean startup methodology dictates that one must rapidly prototype and, after collecting feedback, iterate until a finished product emerges. So, the team put together the framework for the competition while keeping expectations stable for the 1st go-round. Ultimately, the quality of applicants and presentations blew those expectations out of the water.

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Winners: 1st place — LAMBASSADOR, 2nd place — Rapport Card, 3rd place — LifeWork | Photo by Jim Block

Pitch ideas ranged from technologies to promote equal speaking time in meetings, to applications that connected companies with marginalized talent pools, to platforms that provided a path forward for survivors of sexual harassment. Ultimately, Liz Koenig, a 2nd year MBA student from Berkeley Haas, won the 1st place prize with her proposal for a collaborative training for dialogues on race within, and between, MBA communities and top companies where those MBA’s might work. Aside from the prize money for the top 3 pitches, competitors got live feedback from a judging panel and an opportunity to build relationships with potential funders, advisors, and supporters. Both participants and audience members left that competition feeling energized and optimistic about the role of entrepreneurship in building a more inclusive society.

If the initial goal was to pilot a competition that allowed us to learn and improve for the next one, we succeeded. The team gathered feedback from all parties and, already, has started thinking about how to make this event bigger and better. We want to make sure MBA teams from all kinds of backgrounds and schools apply. We want to raise awareness for the event in our quest to make it the preeminent Inclusion Pitch Competition in the world. We want to find and inspire dozens of entrepreneurs-to-be out there, waiting for an avenue to test out their startup spirit in service to a more just society and business community. At the Center for Equity, Gender, and Leadership, we are trying to build equity-fluent leaders, and the Investing in Inclusion Pitch Competition is one key step in getting us there.

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Photos by Jim Block

At the heart of UC Berkeley's Business School, the Center for Equity, Gender, and Leadership educates equity-fluent leaders to ignite and accelerate change.

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