Ava Byte

Finalist Valerie Song is vying for the prize with her Ava Byte garden

The Pitch for the Purse competition awards big bucks to a female business owner. This month’s championship round tests the finalists’ powers of persuasion

Valerie Song enters an upstairs room at the Vancouver Club and eyes a pitcher of water. Filling a glass, she takes a massive swig. “I needed that,” Song gasps between gulps. “I’m also feeling…hungry.”

No wonder. Less than an hour ago on this November morning, Song and nine other female entrepreneurs were down in the club’s Grand Ballroom for the Pitch for the Purse semifinals. After giving a five-minute speech before a sold-out crowd of potential investors, they had to contend with a panel of three inquisitive judges for another eight.

Pitch PerfectNow in its second year, the Pitch for the Purse program selects 10 Canadian women hoping to raise money for their companies, assigning them mentors to help practise their semifinal pitches. In November, the contestants were vying for three spots in the final, which takes place on February 15 at the Fairmont Hotel Vancouver. The top contender receives $25,000.

Last year’s champion was Smart Sweets founder Tara Bosch, also a 2017 winner of this magazine’s 30 Under 30 competition. Bosch’s Vancouver company, a maker of low-sugar candy, is now valued at about $2 million.

“We started the Pitch for the Purse because we know that one of the biggest barriers for entrepreneurs is access to capital and that the best way to fix that is through education and mentorship,” says Christina Anthony, founder and chair of the Forum for Women Entrepreneurs, which puts on the program.

Tracey McVicar, managing partner at CAI Private Equity (the only returning judge from last year’s inaugural competition); Tower Beach Capital Ltd. principal John Montalbano; and Ali Pejman, partner at Fort Capital Partners, served as semifinal judges, with each picking one woman to mentor before the final round.

Pejman thought Song, a UBC engineering grad who was born in Taiwan and raised in Coquitlam, made the best presentation. As a result, her Ava Technologies Inc., a Vancouver-based creator of indoor smart gardens, is headed to the finals. “We’ve reinvented gardening for beginner gardeners,” Song told the crowd about the Ava Byte, which will cost US$200 when it hits stores in winter 2018. “You get the organic quality of Whole Foods paired with the convenience of an espresso machine.”

Nicole Smith, founder of online marketplace Flytographer, which connects travellers with local photographers in some 200 cities worldwide, also made the final three.

Although Smith received an offer on CBC’s Dragons’ Den in 2015, it was less than she asked for. At the time, the panel of Dragons thought she was making a mistake by refusing their bid. A year later, when the show went back to check in on Smith, Flytographer’s team had more than tripled and monthly revenue had skyrocketed. The company now employs 17 people.

“We’re just getting started,” says Smith, a former Microsoft Corp. marketing manager, who launched Flytographer in her native Victoria in 2013.

“Most people don’t know we exist, but we know that when they try us they love us; they come back and tell their friends,” she adds. “So it’s about ‘How do we generate really widespread awareness of the brand?’”

Smith found one way to do that: taping gift cards under every chair in the Vancouver Club ballroom and telling people to check for them after her pitch. McVicar chose Smith as her mentee. “I’m so excited; I like to win,” the judge said.

The third finalist, Julia Dexter, co-founder of Squiggle Park, is from North Bay, Ontario, and lives in Halifax, but her company has customers in B.C. Squiggle Park is an online reading platform for young children that aims to teach English to students with no prior knowledge of the language. Several West Vancouver schools have adopted the product, as well as the Surrey School District.

“I’m really excited about who I’ll be mentoring,” judge Montalbano said of Dexter (formerly Julia Rivard), a one-time Olympic kayaker. “In fact, I think I’ll be mentored, based on the history of this individual.”

Dexter, Smith and Song are focused on getting their pitches as close to perfect as possible for the February finale. Hopefully they remember to drink some water, too.