In February 2021, the HBS New Venture Competition received 50 entries to the Social Enterprise Track, from student teams across Harvard University. Sixteen semifinalists presented in early March to expert judges from the field—a mix of philanthropists, impact investors, capacity building organizations, and social entrepreneurs—who selected our four finalists based on the strength of their concepts and execution of their plans.
Learn more about each finalist team below, and join us on March 30 for our virtual HBS New Venture Competition Finale!
Afya Pamoja - A cost-effective digital patient feedback system for public healthcare facilities in Tanzania.
Simon DeBere (HBS/HKS 2022); Helga Mutasingwa
- How did you come up with your idea? We believe citizens’ voices should be at the heart of responsive and accountable public services in Africa. We had separately observed the challenges public institutions faced in East Africa when trying to meet citizens' needs, in the agriculture, education and healthcare sectors. We were interested in how widely available and low-cost technologies could be used to both support government decision making while elevating the voices of citizens. We began to focus our attention on healthcare in Tanzania given Helga's day to day experiences as a Doctor and public health professional. Through many conversations about how to best engage with patients and government we saw an opportunity to develop our digital feedback solution and Afya Pamoja was born.
- What was the "aha" moment for your start-up? We were meeting with a Doctor in charge of a small healthcare facility in Dar es Salaam and he was describing his desire to understand patient experiences and the measures he'd taken to try and resolve the issue. He listed off a range of ad-hoc approaches he'd tried at different times from pen and suggestion boxes, to hotlines, to WhatsApp groups. Perhaps most encouragingly he described how when an electronic tablet was briefly installed in his facility to collect feedback, patients were so excited to share their views that they complained when the trial was ended. When we saw this untapped demand to both receive and to provide feedback we knew there was an opportunity!
- Why the HBS New Venture Competition? The competition offers opportunities for for-profit social enterprises, which allows ventures like ours focused on sustainable social impact to also compete, even if our venture will never be a unicorn! The opportunity to repeatedly pitch our idea in front of experts and receive feedback has also allowed us to improve our thinking and messaging along the way, which has been valuable part of the process.
- In one word, what does entrepreneurship mean to you? Perseverance
Shelly Xu Design (SXD) - Design-tech startup that makes beautiful, 100% zero waste clothing that costs 55% less to produce.
Shelly Xu (HBS 2021); Ahmed Fardin; Junga Park (HBS 2021)
- How did you come up with your idea? I've always wanted to bring more purpose to what we wear because I've seen from my own hometown how much textile waste is hurting communities. At the same time, I also knew that it can't just be another "sustainable clothing brand." No matter how sustainable the clothing is, if it's not bought and worn, it's just more waste sitting in the corner of a store or a closet. I saw this image consistently when I was working in New York. I wanted to create a new type of clothing that is not only 100% zero waste and fundamentally sustainable, but also more beautiful and accessible so people want to wear it over and over again. I knew that we had to be the Tesla of fashion with products so good that even those who don't care about sustainability want to be a part of it. Pursuing this vision led me to our zero waste designs and the platform that we are now building.
- What was the "aha" moment for your start-up? I was looking at a photo from elementary school of me wearing a kimono, and that was a light bulb moment. The kimono is the OG zero waste garment. One bolt of fabric. Minimal cuts. Zero waste. Perfection dating back to over a thousand years ago. And it's still so relevant today. I remember when Kim Kardashian tried to trademark the name pretty recently! While designers today dream up the trendiest looks in the most unconstrained way, the philosophy behind Asian styles like the kimono is about innovating within the constraints of a fabric. I love this idea of maximizing beauty, efficiency, and desirability while acknowledging the limited resources on our planet. I was inspired to create a range of designs based on this philosophy, and work with engineers to maximize the efficiency of our zero waste designs from step one.
- Why the HBS New Venture Competition? What I love about the New Venture Competition is how much expert feedback and organized practice we get. Any of us starting a venture knows that we are constantly hearing all kinds of things about what we should change, what is brilliant, what would never work. The hardest thing for me has always been separating the noise from the gems that we need to act on. Getting to practice before multiple expert judges and getting feedback from them every round has helped us see the real gaps that keep surfacing and dive deeper to solve them.
- In one word, what does entrepreneurship mean to you? Purpose
Thrive! - Tech enabled racial justice.
Omolara Fatiregun (HGSE 2022); Phillip Jones (HBS/HKS 2021); Evan Little
- How did you come up with your idea? I actually became frustrated after the summer of racial reckoning. From my view, there wasn’t enough emphasis on economic mobility in communities of color. It is not possible to advance a racial justice framework without addressing poverty. I had been tinkering with different approaches for encouraging government—the largest provider of social services—to invest in interventions scientifically proven effective in fighting poverty. But it wasn’t until HBS Professor Mitch Weiss’ class on Public Entrepreneurship that the idea for Equity Audits was born. I was inspired to introduce technology to local government that could generate an equity score based on spending aimed at ending poverty and mitigating disparities in communities of color.
- What was the "aha" moment for your start-up? I called a Chief Equity Officer to learn about how she was balancing COVID and the racial reckoning. Eventually, I shared our vision for Thrive! Equity Audits. When I finished, she asked how she could get the software. Then she asked how much it cost. This happened about a dozen more times with nearly every equity officer that I spoke to. We thought we had a good idea, but we were taken aback by the overwhelming enthusiasm for the product. That’s when we knew we were onto something. Government officials want to do the right things for people of color; they just need the right tools to support them.
- Why the HBS New Venture Competition? Honestly, we entered the competition to win and to get Thrive! onto the big stage. But in preparation for NVC, our team ended up testing a new go to market strategy. This test showed us we really had product market fit. The process of writing the executive summary also helped us to revisit our assumptions and improve our communication. No one enters a competition to lose. But regardless of whether a team is victorious, I really see no downside to participating in NVC. You’ll improve your venture and create useful collateral in the process (including an executive summary and pitch deck) and you may even find great team members along the way.
- In one word, what does entrepreneurship mean to you? Transcendence
Vocal Justice - Empowers Black and Brown youth to become socially conscious leaders.
Shawon Jackson (HKS 2021)
- How did you come up with your idea? In college, I co-taught a public speaking course at a youth correctional facility and realized how powerful it is to help someone recognize and use the power of their voice. Since then I've wondered, "What if every young person learned how to feel confident in their voice?" Graduate school gave me a chance to explore this question, which led me to build Vocal Justice.
- What was the "aha" moment for your start-up? At the end the first training with our teacher fellows, one teacher shared that she finally felt heard, describing how powerful it is to be in community with like-minded educators from across the U.S. In that moment, I realized our work isn't just having a profound impact on students, but on teachers as well.
- Why the HBS New Venture Competition? This competition is an opportunity to grow. Even if you don't win, the practice of putting together your pitch, alongside the detailed feedback you receive on it, better positions you to thrive in the long-term.
- In one word, what does entrepreneurship mean to you? Curiosity