Tom Voutsos, Class of 2022, is a veteran originally from Michigan. After serving as a Marine logistics officer, Tom worked for a social startup in Wilmington, North Carolina. In this series, he will discuss his social entrepreneurship journey as a first year student at Booth and participant in the John Edwardson, ’72, Social New Venture Challenge (SNVC). In this post, Tom discusses the SNVC semifinals and finals, along with next steps for LadderUp Housing.
Last post, I left off with our preparation for the semifinal pitches for the John Edwardson, ’72, Social New Venture Challenge (SNVC). To best prepare for the finals with the couple of weeks we had left, we practiced our pitch with different groups of friends and advisors. Additionally, we sent video copies to those who couldn’t make the live practice rounds. That, coupled with additional coaching sessions, helped us tweak our presentation the right way. More importantly, it helped us practice for the Q&A segment with classroom judges, who often have experience investing in startups. The people who listened to our presentation had a variety of professional backgrounds, so the questions we received each time during practice were equally as variable. It helped us start to build a more robust set of appendix slides to reference during the Q&A. (These slides had additional details on our business risks, competitors, etc. that demonstrated we had thought through issues beyond what was contained in our 11 minute pitch.)
The day of our semifinals pitch, I was extremely nervous. Our team had come a long way, along with the presentation and the venture. Even still, the New Social Ventures course was filled with amazing teams and great ideas. Like everyone else, we wanted to make sure we gave the best version of our presentation.
After our presentation, we answered questions during the Q&A and walked away feeling that we did pretty well. The presentation was the best version we had given thus far. The Q&A went well, but we felt like our answers could have been more concise given the 15 minute timeframe and, in a couple of instances, more directly answering the question asked. The topics of the questions varied, but two examples were how we’d handle negative perceptions that exist around lease-to-own models because of past predatory behavior and what type of capital structure our business would take in the future to enable expansion.
At that point it was out of our hands and we anxiously awaited the results. Luckily we didn’t have to wait long and the following morning we learned that we were in the SNVC finals! The six finalists would present in a week. We had one more week to make the case that our venture was worthy of an investment.
Dan, Elijah, Nikita, and I met the following day to go over the pitch. Like a sports team watching game film, we watched the recording of our pitch and the Q&A. After getting over the awkwardness of watching ourselves on camera, we were able to dissect the minor changes the presentation needed and the best ways to address the Q&A portion. We discussed how to address specific topic areas and ways to have multiple people involved in answering questions to demonstrate the teamwork that has gone into our venture.
Another gamechanger for us that occurred between semifinals and finals was our final session with the course coaches. Professor Christina Hachikian AB ‘02, MBA ‘07; Kalyan Ray-Mazumder MBA ‘19; Deputy Dean for MBA Programs, Starr Marcello AM ‘04, MBA ’17, Senior Associate Director of the Edwardson Social Entrepreneurship Program, Will Colegrove, and Professor Rob Gertner had given us amazing guidance throughout the duration of the course. We were fortunate to meet with them over Memorial Day weekend to discuss our presentation and the Q&A section. Our appendix coming out of that conversation grew by nearly 10 slides, slides that we would use during the finals Q&A.
Lastly, we had a professional logo created for LadderUp. From there, we re-designed our deck to be more visually appealing and incorporate our new colors. The “feel” of the deck now matched the content, and we were ready to go.
The SNVC finals were held the Tuesday after Memorial Day. Like before I was nervous, but our team felt more confident. We made really good use of our time and improved the deck and our approach to the Q&A section. First, we had developed a way to signal on Zoom if another team member wanted to add to an answer on Q&A. Second, we specifically listed, and then focused on, question topics that involved more than one person responding and discussed how we would answer those questions.
When it came time for us to present virtually over Zoom after lunch, we were ready. The presentation went great. Everyone executed their part perfectly. We had a good tempo going into the Q&A.
From there, we were able to execute like we practiced. Everyone was able to contribute during the Q&A, we seamlessly passed questions and answers back and forth, and we were able to reference the appendix slides that had been added. Each team member covered their topic area concisely and confidently. The presentation was a true reflection of the work that had been put into the venture up to that point. In front of the judges, coaches, and a live virtual audience, I couldn’t have asked for a better performance. I was grateful for Dan, Elijah, and Nikita, and all the help we received along the way. Regardless of the outcome, we had put our best effort forward. This was an excellent finale to the term and would serve as the perfect pivot to launching this summer.
We waited for the remaining two teams to complete their pitches, and then the judges deliberated. When the judges returned, they first announced the audience choice award, which went to Axo Foods, a digital platform that makes it easy for food companies to source sustainable and regenerative ingredients, promoting farms that absorb rather than emit carbon.
Then, they announced there was a tie for second place. With an award of $37,500, we were the first named second place winner! We shared second place with Southside Market, a neighborhood fresh market and cafe on a mission to increase healthy food access and business ownership opportunities to communities on the South Side of Chicago and beyond.
The winner of SNVC, with an award of $75,000, was SAEF Legal Aid, a justice-tech nonprofit building tools and services to help low-income parents and families access free and affordable legal solutions.
We were thrilled with the result and honored that we were selected as a winner.
For our team, next steps immediately following the SNVC finals involved finishing academic finals in classes that we had strategically neglected throughout the term. Everyone finished just fine, and then it was time to get ready for the summer.
As I mentioned in an earlier post, I was in the process of moving to Toledo. Following finals, I worked on getting my family moved into our new home. For me, this was a needed break and reset. One of my closest friends from my time in North Carolina, Brandon Walker, started a business that focuses on optimal performance for entrepreneurs and is currently the Chief Growth Officer at Incolo. He impressed upon me the importance of avoiding burnout to maintain peak performance, and he was right.
During the week where I focused on my family and our move, Elijah and Nikita were getting ready for their own moves to begin their internships, while Dan was getting ready to start a full-time role. All three are still participating part time on LadderUp Housing, while I will be involved in a full-time capacity.
I’ve met with our contractors and formalized our purchase process. Additionally, Elijah is working on our website, which we expect to have up and running soon. Nikita has begun to develop our social media presence.
We are now actively looking for homes to acquire and will be releasing ads shortly to attract our initial tenants. We currently have $150,000 raised, and we are looking to raise an additional $200,000 so we can purchase and renovate five homes. I will be overseeing the purchase and renovations, along with sourcing the initial five tenants. Our goal is to have five tenants placed by the end of summer, along with some level of demonstrated credit score improvement after working with our non-profit financial coaching partner.
Dan, Elijah, and Nikita will be working on other elements of our business that will be vital to scaling after we complete the proof of concept this summer. Dan will be focusing on adjusting our financial model to reflect the real-world experience we have this summer and determining the best capital structure as we expand. Elijah will be helping automate different process flows and building out a more robust neighborhood selection model. Nikita will be focusing on branding and marketing strategy, along with developing the best method to acquire partnerships.
Next week, we start the Polsky Accelerator, which will help aid us in accomplishing the items mentioned above. The Accelerator will allow us to receive help in real time as we operationalize the venture and develop our expansion and fundraising strategy for the Fall.
I hope you enjoyed reading about the process of the SNVC through my eyes. I really enjoyed sharing my experience and am grateful that through this platform I can share it with all of you! I’m truly blessed for the opportunity to have worked with my team, coaches, and advisors throughout this process, and I’m thankful to Booth for providing these amazing opportunities. For anyone who has followed our journey and is thinking about social entrepreneurship, I encourage you to start asking questions (particularly of the Rustandy Center) early and often. No one is 100% ready, but the ability to continue to ask questions and seek constructive criticism will help turn your idea into a real life venture. Good luck!