19 Mar 2021

Get to Know The 2021 New Venture Competition Judges


With the New Venture Competition (NVC) Finale right around the corner (be sure to RSVP and tune in March 30 at 6:00 pm ET), learn more about this year’s panel of judges, some of whom have been participating in NVC for almost 20 years, and some of whom are taking part for the first time.

The judges—former NVC winners among them—come from such varied backgrounds as traditional venture capital firms to teacher education academies. This year’s line-up includes:

We asked them about their connection to NVC, what they think makes for a compelling pitch, and if they have advice for the next generation of entrepreneurs.

Q: What is your history with NVC?

David Hall: I’m a first timer and I’m excited to see the output of a program that has birthed a number of amazing companies.

Tony Klemmer: I have been a judge with NVC in the Social Enterprise Track for six years. I offered up office hours to Harvard entrepreneurs through the i-Lab and was asked to participate as an entrepreneur now serving the social sector.

Russ Wilcox: This is my third year participating as a judge. Every year is another opportunity to see and interact with some amazing ventures led by future entrepreneurs.

Gwill York: I’ve been involved for almost 20 years. I was asked to be a judge and followed (current fellow judge) Terry Maguire as head judge for a few years. I’ve been lucky enough to be a successful entrepreneur, starting two companies and investing in over 500 startups while raising two sons. I am grateful to HBS and wanted my demographic to be part of the judging process.

Terry McGuire: One of the Polaris partners has been judging the NVC every year since 1996. We feel like it’s an important tradition to continue, and I’m thrilled to participate on behalf of our firm this year.

Susan Wolf Ditkoff: I was honored to be the co-founder of the Social Enterprise Track of the HBS Business Plan Contest (as NVC was then known) in 2000-2001 along with Professor Allen Grossman and others. In the late 1990s we saw a tremendous surge in the number of HBS students interested in social entrepreneurship. However, at the time the focus of the Business Plan Contest was primarily tech startups promising hockey stick-like financial returns. Yet, we knew we had an incredible opportunity to engage the outstanding talent who desperately wanted support in focusing on society’s most pressing problems.

Q: Why are you participating as a judge in this year’s NVC?

Klemmer: It is a way to give back to my alma mater. I have seen hundreds of startups over the years and I never tire of hearing the stories, seeing the palpable energy shining forth from the teams who share their plans and dreams. The NVC is run extremely well and the chance to interact with entrepreneurs on the front end of their journeys is gratifying.

York: I keep doing it because the companies are always terrific and keep getting better.

Wilcox: Judging the finals is a chance to recognize exceptional entrepreneurs from the HBS community. I also appreciate the chance to compare notes with my fellow judges, who include a mix of successful founders and talented investors.

McGuire: I am judging this year because I am always thrilled and impressed by the ideas and entrepreneurs coming out of HBS. It's fun to be part of the story.

Ditkoff: I think the competition has only gotten stronger over time. Students are now far savvier about the systems within which they hope to operate, and respectful of the wide variety of forces working against the social change they seek. Plans have benefited tremendously from an increasingly impressive variety of experiences and skills from across the university and Boston/Cambridge, especially in technical areas. Students across the board are not pitching their startups as stand-alone entities that will change the world by virtue of their sheer pluck and brilliant ideas, but are mindful that they are trying to make change happen as part of a larger, more complex system. I’m excited to see what this year’s entries have in store.

Hall: This was the first time I was asked. I would have loved to participate previously!

Q: In your opinion, what makes for a compelling pitch?

Ditkoff: In my experience, the most compelling pitches speak to our hearts and minds and souls. Some teams lean more on the heart-warming/heart-breaking stories, some teams dive deep into the data, and yet others elevate the plan in the context of their own life “mission” in the deepest sense of that word. No one of those alone is sufficient. More than any one killer slide or pro forma, it’s about whether the judges believe that this team can pull off this plan, and if they do, that it will matter and profoundly improve the lives of actual people and places in the world.

Sarah Kunst: A compelling pitch is one that shows why the market is huge and can absorb multibillion-dollar companies and also shows founder market fit. Why are the founders particularly well suited to build a huge company in this market?

Hall: I love the founder’s connection to the problem that they are trying to solve. It serves as a proxy for the company’s “true north” and will often guide and sustain the founders through the low points in the entrepreneurial journey.

Wilcox: People forget that at its heart, a pitch is a financial presentation. Skip the fancy graphics and gimmicks. Your goal is to explain an investment thesis. Make us understand why the customer will buy, how you make money on each order, how much you can sell, and how you can build a competitive moat. If that all works, if we feel you are a backable person, and if the investment size and stage fit our fund, then we will be very interested.

McGuire: A compelling pitch is a combination of clear market need, an elegant and defendable solution, a sustainable business model, and a charismatic and impactful team. At the end of the day, I believe that companies are simply platforms from which teams soar. In the end it is all about people.

Klemmer: A combination of elements make pitches and startups compelling. First, the team and its knowledge, concept, and mix of confidence and humility. Second, the framing of the opportunity in the context of the environment, industry, and sector proposed: How well does it fit? Third, a cogent plan that hangs together functionally and addresses what is core to success. Finally, a team that can answer questions articulately and also, very importantly, knows what it doesn’t know (you can’t know everything).

Q: Do you have any advice for future entrepreneurs?

Knust: My advice is to think about what you are most passionate and knowledgeable about in a huge market and then go build.

Wilcox: If you can imagine yourself working for someone else, that would probably be easier. But for those who take the plunge and manage to find success, the pride and satisfaction of starting a thriving company that delights its customers is immeasurable.

Klemmer: You need the risk profile to stomach endless uncertainty, or do not try to build a startup. If you have the moxie, don’t listen to the naysayers. Seek a few folks with experience who can help steer you. And be honest with yourself. If it doesn’t work out, fail gracefully.

Hall: Circumstances in entrepreneurship are rarely obvious or perfect. Get comfortable making decisions with imperfect and incomplete information. From product launches and sales to recruiting, entrepreneurs must get comfortable taking a risk and making the fastest, best decision possible.

McGuire: It sounds simple: Romance married with truth. Entrepreneurs should pursue what they love (the romance). That's the best way to win. It will drive them. But at the same time, they should rely on the truth to ground them in reality. Don't kid partners (co-founders, teammates, stakeholders, customers). Don't kid themselves.

Post a Comment

Comments must be on-topic and civil in tone (with no name calling or personal attacks). Any promotional language or urls will be removed immediately. Your comment may be edited for clarity and length.