I had booked my ticket to the WIE ILC Conference 2017 as early as December 2016 since I was invited to the conference after I had received an honorable mention for the 2016 IEEE Women in Engineering Inspiring Member of the year award. Meanwhile my startup had just started to pick up with more exposure and some successes in terms of competitions and partnerships. When I first received the announcement about the Pitch Competition I thought it would be too good to be true to get selected among the six startups which were going to make it for two reasons. First, my startup was still at an early stage. Second, I came from Lebanon, a tiny country on the Eastern Mediterranean which some Americans have not heard of before. Nevertheless, I set my mind on applying because I was going to the conference anyway and because I had nothing to lose. I kept a close eye at the deadline and made sure to apply on time. Needless to say, the earlier applications I have submitted to entrepreneurship competitions and programs have paved the way to write a good application. When I received the “Congratulations” e-mail from Conference Chair Nita Patel, I started jumping of joy and immediately informed my dear ones about this accomplishment. I even shared it on my Facebook timeline and on the entrepreneurship groups that I am part of. I was so proud!
As the date grew closer, I got more and more excited about the pitch and kept thinking on a daily basis about what to say and what to include. I also learned that my awards panel will take place at the same time of the pitching session which left me a little nervous as well.
On the day of the pitch, I intended to attend the Yoga session hosted in the exhibition area in the conference because I was too tense and needed to relax. Honestly, it worked! Although I have been teaching at university for the past seven years and I am used to public speaking and presenting in front of large audiences, I have to admit that pitching is a totally different experience that I am still in the course of getting used to. After relieving some of the stress, thanks to Yoga, it was time for rehearsal. I had not properly timed my pitch and was always worried that I would not be able to finish on time. In fact, my rehearsal was more than twice the allowed pitch time of 5 minutes. Nevertheless, the pitch coach, Ben Larson, had excellent suggestions on how to cut the pitch time and had extremely insightful feedback regarding the actual content. The best thing was that he really liked the idea behind the startup and his words were very encouraging. As soon as I finished the rehearsal and the short interview with IEEE Entrepreneurship TV, I set to apply the comments I received. I had a small feeling that I had a chance in winning the competition which also kept the Adrenaline pumping.
Pitching time! I was the second to go, after a first great pitch from another award winner. It was time to tell the audience including esteemed judges about Riyada for Social Innovation, my baby. Given that the business idea emerged out of frustration after being in the Lebanese entrepreneurship ecosystem for 5 years, I felt that I had to talk about why I started Riyada, which is a social entrepreneurship education enabler, in this part of the world. As interesting as it may have been, the time I spent on the story was the reason I couldn’t finish my pitch on time as per my worst fear. The best part, however, was that the judges were truly interested in what the startup does and asked extremely good questions. They believed that the pitch was very well-prepared and saw a lot of potential in building an online platform that teaches the youth about social entrepreneurship in a hands-on and project-based manner where they get the chance to solve a real social problem in their community by creating a technology product and being mentored by experts and social entrepreneurs in their region that they connect to through the platform. I was even contacted by one of the judges and I visited their offices the following day in San Francisco where I explained more about Riyada and we discussed room for future collaboration.
I was glad to see that most of the pitching startups were social in nature and that women entrepreneurs in technology truly care to solve real social problems in the world through entrepreneurship. Even though Riyada did not win the competition we believe that the pitching experience at WIE ILC ’17 was phenomenal and has added value to our path towards future success!
Caption: Yoga before rehearsals
By: Mona Itani