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White House Demo Day: A Pitch for Parity

By Jeffrey C.P. Wang and Trevor Roberts
This article first appeared in Legaltech news on August 18, 2015

On August 4, the White House hosted its first ever “Demo Day,” an event that brought together more than 30 companies and 90 entrepreneurs represented by women, minorities and a wide range of ethnicities. Innovators not only had the opportunity to pitch their products, but to showcase their personal success stories and the obstacles they had to overcome along the way. It was a chance for these future business leaders to call for more support for female and minority entrepreneurs.

Several venture capital firms have promised to invest more money in startups founded by women and minorities, and many companies have pledged to adopt the so-called “Rooney Rule.” This rule, named after Pittsburgh Steelers owner Dan Rooney, calls for at least one female and one person of color to be interviewed whenever there is an opening for an executive position. This is intended to ensure that women and minorities at least have the chance to get in the door.

President Obama, while expressing his appreciation to the 40 venture capital firms that have pledged to support diversity, noted that only about 3% of startups that are backed by venture capital are led by women, and that only 1% are led by African Americans. The president further acknowledged that while it is hard for any entrepreneur to get in front of the right people, it can be even harder for women or members of an underrepresented minority.

Attendees were able to present their ideas to “Presidential Ambassadors for Global Entrepreneurship,” a select group of leaders in business, philanthropy and the non-profit sector, and even the president himself. But unlike typical private-sector demos, where the focus is almost solely on viability and profitability, here the discussions centered on such topics as inclusion and cooperation. Below is a small sampling of the startups that addressed these issues and set up exhibits of their products:

BlueOak: An electronics recycling firm that harvests precious metals out of old smartphones and TVs.

Open Health Network: A mobile health platform for creating apps to benefit patients and providers.

Onboard Dynamics: A company that is working to bring natural gas-powered cars to average families.

Privail: A company that is commercializing low-cost, early HIV detection technology.

Suneris: The maker of VETIGEL, an algae-derived gel that stop bleeding without using pressure.

Cocoon cam: A baby monitor that uses computer vision and cloud-based data.Rogue Rovers: A maker of autonomous, all-electric farming vehicles.

Spot On Sciences: The developer of HemSpot, a method of remote blood collection.

Pigeonly: The maker of products to help inmates stay in touch with families and loved ones.

Jerry the Bear: A smart stuffed animal with educational apps that helps kids develop healthy habits.

The president also took the opportunity to announce several proposals that he hopes will help get more resources into the hands of would-be entrepreneurs. At the same time, Obama reiterated the need to address the imbalance that exists in the high-tech industry, including representation among venture capitalists (it is worth noting that only about 4% of venture capitalists are women). Below are just a few of the initiatives that the White House is expanding across the country:

TechHire: This multi-sector effort is coming to 10 new cities. TechHire is a call to action to empower Americans with the skills they need, through universities, community colleges, and nontraditional approaches like “coding boot camps.” More than 300 employer partners in need of a high-tech workforce are working together through TechHire to find new ways to recruit and place applicants, and to create more fast track technical training opportunities.

I Corps: The National Science Foundation’s “Innovation Corps” (I Corps) program is being expanded to six new cities. Through a set of activities and programs, scientists and engineers extend their focus beyond the laboratory, and I Corps broadens the impact of select, NSF-funded, basic-research projects. This public-private partnership program teaches grantees to identify valuable product opportunities that can emerge from academic research, and offers entrepreneurship training to student participants.

Startup in a Day: 50 new cities are participating in the White House’s “Startup in a Day.” This initiative aims to make it easier for entrepreneurs to start their own business. The Small Business Administration (SBA) conducted two prize competitions for U.S. cities and Native American communities. Both competitions awarded prizes to support the development, implementation, and improvement of online tools for learning how to register and apply for all required local licenses and permits, in one day or less.