Felix participated in the venture pitch contest during its inaugural year in 2013, served as the contest marketing coordinator, worked for founders Tim Draper and Melissa Parker Draper ’77, and this year, is a workshop leader and contest judge.
Felix—who is now vice president of Embarc Collective, a nonprofit supporting startups in Tampa Bay, Florida—says being part of the Draper Competition “was transformative to my time at Smith and to my career.”
“My experience in the contest gave me essential skills,” says Felix, whose Draper pitch was a women’s wellness venture. “It wasn’t just developing a business idea but learning how to make professional contacts and present ideas publicly. I can draw a direct line from the competition to how my career has unfolded.”
Felix is not alone in feeling that impact. Since the first contest in 2013, the Draper Competition has drawn more than 750 participants, helped launch 65 startup ventures and provided more than $900,000 in cash and Draper University scholarships to college women entrepreneurs.
In this year’s competition, organized by Smith’s Jill Ker Conway Innovation and Entrepreneurship Center, 75 teams from schools across the U.S. are competing for a spot in the finals—including nine teams from Smith. The 2021 finals will be held virtually beginning at 4 p.m. on Friday, April 9, when $100,000 in prizes will be awarded. R&B artist Ari Lenox will hold a Q&A during the competition and will perform after winners are announced.
In a related event, at 5 p.m. on Thursday, April 8, the Conway Center will host a keynote panel, “Women Funding Women,” about the changing landscape of “angel investing” and venture capital. S. Mona Sinha ’88, Smith trustee emerita and Gender Lens investor, will moderate the discussion.
Reflecting on the theme of this year’s competition, “Equity Through Women’s Entrepreneurship,” Sinha notes that in 2020, women-founded enterprises received just 2.3 percent of all venture funding in the U.S. (down from 3 percent in 2019), and women partners account for only 2.4 percent of venture decision makers.
“We need to change that reality,” says Sinha, who has served as a judge at Draper since the competition began. “We must leverage more firms based on feminist solutions that shift the power dynamic for women and elevate communities and economies at large. Supporting women innovators and amplifying their success is key to unlocking this change.”
Melissa Chenok ’15 has seen the impact of the Draper Competition increase since they were a participant in 2015.
“Back then, it was mostly Smith students and students from the Five Colleges,” says Chenok, who is serving as a team mentor and contest judge this year. “With the Conway Center hosting, it has become a much broader program.”
Chenok—who majored in neuroscience at Smith and is now the director of product for Quorum, a software startup in Washington, D.C.—says “creative problem-solving skills” were a key takeaway from Draper.
“Managing stakeholder relationships and doing customer research are skills that I learned from the competition and that I now exercise every day in my job,” Chenok says. “I also met other like-minded entrepreneurial peers who I’m still friends with.”
Participating in the Draper Competition was also “instrumental in helping me identify what I wanted to pursue,” says Chenok, who created a big data search engine through Draper while at Smith and worked as a product manager for IBM after graduating.
“I realized I could take my passion for science and mix it with technology for my career because of the work that I got to do in the tech space during Draper,” Chenok says.
Chichi Wu ’22 is not competing in Draper this year—but only because she is busy taking a 2020 contest-winning idea about blockchain technology—a digital records system best known for its use by bitcoin—to the next level.
Wu is currently working on a lecture series that will introduce students from women’s colleges and historically Black colleges and universities to blockchain and other decentralized technologies to help spark learning about “the intersection between emerging technologies and money, power, social change and finance.”
Through the Draper Competition, Wu says she learned skills “I would not have been able to learn in a traditional classroom setting, such as how to write an executive summary, pitching, market research and financial analysis.”
Her advice to fellow students thinking about participating in future Draper contests?
“I highly recommend it!” Wu says. “The experience made me more confident and excited to pursue entrepreneurship in the future.”