When Derek Tu and Prabha Dublish met in April of 2014, it wasn’t for immediate collaboration. It was actually in a form of competition. The two were finishing up their senior years in high school and vying for Babson College’s coveted Weissman Scholarship–a full-ride merit-based scholarship with an additional $20,000 in seed cash spread out over four years. Dublish ultimately won the scholarship, but the experience proved to be the start of a friendship and two years later, the budding of a social venture called Womentum. Legally classified as a nonprofit, Womentum is the newest donation-based crowdfunding platform. But where Womentum differs from an Indiegogo or Kickstarter is the entrepreneurs are all women and are placed on the platform through strategic partnerships Tu and Dublish have established with other nonprofits around the globe.
And for the two 19-year-olds, the startup focused on shattering the walls of generational poverty is just as much personal as it is a cool B-school project. The idea came to Dublish after a summer trip to India, which focused on women entrepreneurs. Dublish was leaving a movie theater in Delhi when she saw a boy that looked about five years old visibly malnourished and nearly naked. The sight shocked her. As she met with women in the area and asked them about their businesses–many of them seamstresses–she learned about two barriers: lack of funding and lack of community support.
For Tu, the cycle of generational poverty hits even closer to home. His family immigrated from Canada to the Chicago area when he was five with just $200. “I envied the other kids at school with Game Boys and Yu-Gi-Oh cards and blamed my parents for the conditions we found ourselves in,” Tu remembers, noting it was only through the generosity of others and his parent’s hard work that his family was able to break the clutches of poverty. “I didn’t realize at the time how lucky I was,” Tu continues. “I’ve gone back to the area where I grew up in Canada, and some of those I grew up with weren’t as fortunate.”
EMPOWERING WOMEN ENTREPRENEURS WHEN FEW OTHERS WILL
So when Dublish approached Tu with her idea to find financial and community support for Indian women keen on entrepreneurship, the fit was natural. They snagged Northwestern student, Aaron Leon as a site developer and when the platform is fully launched in a few weeks, users may read about the women entrepreneurs in India, Uganda, Malawi and California, what their projects are and why they need some extra cash to get them going. The community support deficiencies are made up through donor interaction. The donors receive updates from the women and can communicate with the entrepreneurs themselves.
“I’ve always been interested in how people can use entrepreneurship to change their lives,” Dublish says about her original reasons for research in India. “And also, how to leverage the resources available to them to start small-scale businesses.”
Of course the United States is a cauldron and bubble of entrepreneurship. Investment money flies around like autumn leafs. And while there is certainly a gender gap in entrepreneurship and said funding, it’s not even comparable to other places in the world where women are socially pressured and looked down on for not fitting “traditional” norms. “The women couldn’t just go to a bank and ask for money. That wasn’t going to happen in India,” Dublish explains. “I was really astounded by how the families would look down on them for leaving that traditional role that was so expected in India.”
THE ‘PAY-IT-FORWARD’ STYLE OF CROWDFUNDING
Dublish and Tu began forming partnerships with nonprofits focused on helping women overcome those and other barriers to building small businesses and essentially becoming financially independent. “Overcoming the lack of funding and community support is really what Womentum’s all about,” Dublish insists. Once the women are on the platform, they are only allowed to raise $200. If they are successful and make back all of the loan, they can use the platform again and raise $300. Then, instead of paying back the loan, they “pay-it-forward” by lending the money to other women entrepreneurs in their community.
“That’s essentially what distinguishes us from an organization like Kiva,” says Dublish. “Womentum is not a microfinance firm. Our model is more of a pay-it-forward model. If you’re a donor and you give $10 to these women, you will not receive your money back. And then what we encourage is once these women are successful, they give a donation to other women in their community.”
The model clearly encourages financial and community support among the entrepreneurs. And Tu and Dublish believe it’s also a more viable way to grow the small-scale ventures.
“A lot of times, microfinance institutions encourage these short-term repayments that don’t allow growth in businesses,” Dublish believes. “And that’s what we want to promote in this model–ensuring that these women are able to grow their businesses without constant repayments.”
Tu says they’ve honed in on making sure the donor can clearly see and understand the entrepreneur and how much money they need and what it’s for. “We want to create an intimate relationship between the donor and the entrepreneur,” adds Tu. “We offer these donors updates on the entrepreneurs on whether or not they’re successful every three weeks.”
So far, the two have sunk $400 of the Weissman Scholarship money and $200 from their own pockets. Moving forward as a 501(c)3, they plan on growing donations to validate their idea and then relying upon institutional investors to continue as “every penny” transacted on the platform will go to the entrepreneurs. True to their B-school education, the plan is to scale. “A lot of nonprofits don’t focus on growth, but that is one of our core competencies,” says Tu.
Despite being teenagers, Dublish and Tu are no strangers to entrepreneurship. The two have each already started businesses. Before graduating from Skyline High School in Sammamish, Washington–a suburb east of Seattle–Dublish had interned for Ashoka and founded and directed Charity Circle, a Seattle-based organization that links teenagers to volunteer with local nonprofits. Tu, graduated from Hinsdale Central High School–the same school where current BP CEO Bob Dudley graduated. Prior to graduation, Tu spent time as a summer research student at the University of Illinois-Champaign and a summer intern at Asian-focused social impact fund, Advantage Ventures. He’s also working on eTower, a platform he founded to connect resources for entrepreneurs.
Being from the Midwest and West Coast, neither one knew much about Boston-based Babson College. But they each had personal connections to the campus and it took one visit to be convinced of Babson’s hot bed for student entrepreneurs.
“The entrepreneurial spirit at Babson was huge,” Dublish says of her initial impression of Babson’s community. “It was astounding to see how many people were starting things. They aren’t afraid to take whatever opportunity comes in front of them and strive to achieve that dream. That kind of spirit was something I had never really experienced.”
LEVERAGING B-SCHOOL RESOURCES AND INSIGHTS
And the two have been able to tap into all the resources that come with such an entrepreneurial-minded community. “It has been helpful being at a business school where professors have different focuses because we’re able to find people to help us in those areas we might not know as much about,” Dublish says, noting the help they had with legal paperwork to gain 501(c)3 status.
“Everyone on campus knows how to write a business plan or qualify as a B-corp,” Tu agrees. “But not everybody knows how to file for a 501(c)3 and deal with the IRS and get all of the necessary documents in to start a nonprofit.”
Dublish has also been able to leverage the resources of Babson’s hub for social innovation, the Lewis Institute, where she is an intern and undergraduate scholar. Meanwhile, Tu has built upon his involvement as a partner at Babson’s student-run venture firm, Rough Draft Ventures.
Still, the project certainly hasn’t come without a few pain-points and headaches for the two business analytics majors. “Imagine how hard it is to sell a product or service at a startup,” says Tu. “It’s exponentially harder to sell them on a vision and a cause of a nonprofit.” Not to mention the various activities, classes and time commitments that tug undergraduates in nearly every direction.
“In an ideal world, we wouldn’t be going to classes. We’d be working on this full-time,” says Tu, noting the two have considered taking an entire semester completely off to grow Womentum.
‘BUSINESS CAN CREATE ECONOMIC AND SOCIAL VALUE SIMULTANEOUSLY’
The Babson community has also opened their eyes to the blooming world of social enterprise.
“I had always been fascinated with giving back and community service–that was always a huge part of my life in high school,” says Dublish, noting she’s seen an influx in social entrepreneurs in her two years at Babson. “But when I came to Babson, I realized that business is a way to do that, just by meeting other social entrepreneurs and seeing what they were able to do. I think it’s a field that’s often over-looked. But it shouldn’t be. Business can create economic and social value simultaneously.”
And Tu sees Womentum and his time at Babson as an opportunity to pay the generosity he was given forward.
“Thank God there were people there who lent us a helping hand and made sure we were fed and living under a roof,” Tu says, remembering his childhood. “I want to lend a hand now to those people in the world as well. In college we have the lowest opportunity cost. We both are on scholarships, why not use this time to do something that will make an impact in the universe.”