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 progress his venture has made since his last post, Social Entrepreneurship and Chicago Booth. While expanding the team’s network of industry experts and continuing with customer discovery, he does his best to strike a balance between his venture, classes, and family.
First, I’d like to give you an update on what our team has accomplished since my last post. We have been working simultaneously on operationalizing the venture and finishing our pitch presentation to secure initial funding…and we have a new name! As we make our way through Booth’s New Social Ventures course, we changed our name from The 200 Project to LadderUp Housing after hearing from SNVC coaches and others that our original name didn’t effectively convey what our company aspires to do. We think LadderUp Housing better illustrates our mission—to give people an opportunity to bridge the wealth gap through homeownership.
To build our venture, we needed to not only create a presentation that would allow us to fund our work, but also demonstrate to potential investors that we were making progress and could execute on the plan we built. In terms of operationalizing the venture, our offering has three distinct steps. We are planning on (1) purchasing and renovating homes, (2) renting those homes to workers while they improve their credit scores through financial coaching, and then (3) selling those homes to the worker when they qualify for traditional mortgage financing. In each of those areas, we’ve taken some significant steps toward finding local partners and services that will be needed to launch our business this summer.
- I have been speaking with local Toledo, Ohio (our pilot market) contacts and looking at the Toledo Real Estate Investing Facebook page to vet contractors. We have settled on two contractors who provide the best combination of quality and price point. They are also committed to hiring people from our target neighborhoods.
- After extensive research into available financial counseling services, we have narrowed it down to two providers and plan on selecting one in the next two weeks. These providers have been successful in their work of increasing financial literacy in Toledo and have a good reputation in the community.
- We want to make sure that lenders were making FHA home loans in the communities we will be operating in. Furthermore, we wanted to ensure they were making loans for amounts less than $80,000, which is an unsaid minimum mortgage amount with many lenders. Fortunately, the Home Mortgage Disclosure Act (HMDA), publishes data that shows every loan issued, amount, rate, and location. Looking at this data, we confirmed that loans were being issued for the amounts we would be selling homes.
Expanding Our Network
While we worked through these operational issues, we continued to expand our industry expert network and found advisors that fill in expertise gaps. Booth is renowned for its alumni network, faculty, and connections to industry experts. We tapped into every Booth resource possible to expand our knowledge base.
Two “buckets” of activities we engaged in to expand our network were meeting (virtually) during office hours with Dave Ellis, the social entrepreneurship executive in residence at Booth’s Rustandy Center for Social Sector Innovation, and generally attending any event that is even tangentially related to our business to meet new people. Through the Rustandy Center, I met Dave Ellis, founder and CEO of EthioChicken, a leading poultry production company in East Africa that focuses on selling high quality chicken breeds to farmers in rural Ethiopia. His experiences building a business and thoughts on our offering have been extremely helpful, and he is now an advisor on our project.
One event that I attended that has been helpful in framing how we look at credit risk was hosted by the Entrepreneurship Group. They hosted Esusu co-founders Abbey Wemimo and Samir Goel. Esusu is a company focused on bridging the racial wealth gap. Besides the talk providing great information, I received Abbey and Samir’s contact information. Despite being in the middle of announcing a partnership with Goldman Sachs, they took the time to speak with our team and give us advice. We are looking to integrate Esusu’s services in our pilot this summer. Ji-Hoon Lee, one of the Entrepreneurship Group’s co-chairs, invited Abbey and Samir to speak, and he also met with me to discuss our approach to building our presentation and how to appeal to investors. This was pay-it-forward happening on multiple levels.
Refining the Pitch, Striking a Balance
While all these other things were happening, we were still working on refining the pitch. We would be giving our midterm pitch six weeks after giving our introductory pitch, and three weeks after that would be competing in the semifinals of the SNVC. Additionally, I personally was working on striking the appropriate balance amidst other responsibilities. Besides working on this venture, I have two other classes not related to the SNVC. On top of the classes and building the venture, my wife and I have an 18-month-old daughter. And on top of all that, we bought a house in Toledo and were starting the moving process. There was a lot going on at once.
Fortunately, I have an amazing support network, starting with my wife. Annie is originally from Toledo and, after we got married, left her job at KPMG in Chicago to join me in North Carolina where I was stationed at Camp Lejeune. She got a job at a family office in Wilmington (where she still works full time remotely). Her professional drive and kind heart is something that I admire and try to emulate. In many ways, I have had to lean on her in these past couple of months, and she has been a rock through everything. I’m truly fortunate.
We are also lucky to have families that are always willing to help. Whether it was Annie’s parents or mine coming to Chicago, or us visiting them in Ohio and Michigan, they provided us relief to catch up on whatever we needed. Also, my brother, Greg, lives in the city and has offered his apartment as a workspace away from home and has helped me with all sorts of projects in our apartment.
I think everything going on finally caught up to us in our midterm pitch. The content of the pitch was improved from our first pitch, but after speaking with each of our team members, we agreed it felt flat. Whether it was the crunch of midterms in other classes, or personal life chaos like mine, we were all a little off.
In many ways, however, it was a great time for that to happen. It was the humble pie we needed, and you don’t want to peak too early. All of us recommitted to the venture and didn’t just step up our efforts (everyone was working hard) but stepped up the energy in relation to the project.
We are readying our last push before the semifinal pitch in two weeks. When I write next, I will be discussing how the final pitch went, the final pieces of operationalizing our venture, and where we go from here.
Curious to hear some of the other SNVC pitches? RSVP to watch this year’s SNVC finalists compete for $150,000 in funding on Tuesday, June 1, 2021 »