4/28/2014 - The MBA Impact Investing Network & Training competition
asks student teams to find the best real-world startups to benefit both society and investors’ pocketbooks.
Kellogg’s Cindy Ye ’15, Zoila Jennings ’14 and Jennifer Wittig ’14 decided to double their impact by focusing their search on startups that do meaningful work and those founded or co-founded by women. That search led them to Jail Education Solutions
, a startup founded by Kellogg and Northwestern Law grads that provides tablet-based educational services to help inmates get their lives back on track.
“Women entrepreneurs are the least financed by VC firms in terms of women-founded [startups], so we felt there was a need in the market,” Jennings said.
Backing JES has paid off. At the finals last month at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, the trio beat out 60 students from seven top business schools. They won the Best Investment and Best Impact awards, in addition to $50,000 in equity for JES.
“We first won the social impact award, which we were really excited about because we believe strongly that jail has very high social impact,” Jennings said. “But it was really exciting then to win the Best Investment because it demonstrated it’s not an either-or [question]. Even the most impactful could also be a fantastic investment.”
The team looked for startups in three places: online, through the Kellogg network and at local startup incubators like Impact Engine
These searches came together when the group met the Jail Education Solutions team at an Impact Engine demo day. JES was founded by Kellogg student Brian Hill ’15, Northwestern Law grad Freya Riel ’13, JD-MBA Adam Hopson '13 and Andy Brimhall.
It was an earlier-stage startup than the other companies the team considered, but the team couldn’t shake the excitement they had when talking about JES.
“As we were in discussions with our mentor (venture capitalist) Tasha (Seitz), she reminded us that the excitement we were feeling is real and, even though it’s not a metric you may have written down in your criteria list, that that’s real and you should pay attention to it,” Wittig said.
Just the beginning
While other teams focused on environmental or educational startups, the Kellogg team felt the often-neglected correctional sector was the right pick.
“For me, it was all about picking one that not too many other people are paying too much attention,” Ye said. “I think the two verticals that we picked of women entrepreneurs and the jail or correctional facility space are two areas that a lot of times just fall through the cracks.”
Riel, now JES’ director of programming, said the funding will help the group launch pilot programs by year’s end in at least seven correctional facilities that have signed letters of intent. After testing an educational television programming system in the Cook County Jail in 2013, they will be switching to an all-tablet system this summer.
“Our main focus right now is really on refining the technology and curating the set of customized programs that are going to be run on it,” Riel said.
She said JES will be testing a prototype of an entirely new platform to run on the tablets over the summer.
“That’s just the beginning,” Riel said.
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