They had only 60 seconds. Eight men and women in Shanghai, San Francisco, Jerusalem, São Paulo, Nashville, London, and Berlin had just one minute each to state their case and persuade the judges of the WeWork Creator awards—a global competition for mission-driven entrepreneurs and nonprofits—to help fund their big idea.
Five finalists in the Business Venture category and three Nonprofit finalists moved on from those regional events to compete for over $1 million at the Global Finals, which will take place Wednesday, January 9, in Los Angeles. Ashton Kutcher, Forerunner Ventures founder Kirsten Green, and entrepreneur and chairman of VaynerX Gary Vaynerchuk are among the judges.
Chloe Alpert began her pitch at the San Francisco regionals with a shocking statistic: The No. 1 cause of bankruptcy in the U.S. is medical debt. Alpert’s investment in this issue was personal because her grandmother had been diagnosed with brain cancer several years ago.
“My family had to decide whether to bankrupt the family by paying for a surgery that only might prolong her life,” she says.
Alpert soon discovered that there was slack in the medical system: Hospitals throw away some $765 billion in usable equipment and supplies each year. So she and her three co-founders built Medinas Health to provide a platform for big hospitals looking to get rid of older—but still functional—equipment like X-ray machines, which can be sold to smaller institutions. Now the company, competing in the Business Venture category, is hoping Creator will help it expand its pilot program to more hospitals and enable it to create partnerships with medical facilities in developing countries.
Stephanie Benedetto’s pitch at the Nashville regionals was equally personal. Benedetto comes from a long line of fashion entrepreneurs: Her grandfather, who emigrated to New York City from Austria in 1896, was a master furrier, and her family has been in the garment industry for 100 years. So Benedetto has seen first-hand how much waste the industry produces by burning or throwing away excess fabric. Her company, Queen of Raw, does for fabric what Medinas Health does for hospital equipment: It creates a marketplace for companies that have been discarding fabric and other raw materials to instead sell them to smaller businesses.
Since winning in Nashville, the Business Venture finalist, which operates out of New York’s WeWork 349 5th Ave, has benefited from proximity to a startup community. “We have found partnerships and arrangements through these networks that I’d never thought of before,” says Benedetto—such as specialists who helped move the Queen of Raw platform onto the blockchain.
Rachel Corson and Joycleyn Mate were motivated by a similar desire to solve a personal problem. The duo created Afrocenchix, the London Business Venture winner, with an eye toward bringing affordable, nontoxic hair care for black and mixed-race women to the UK. Their interest in the field is more than aesthetic: One of the chemicals typically found in the relaxers black women use on their hair has been linked to issues like fibroids, cancer, and respiratory problems. “It’s not just about products for us,” Corson says. “It’s about health, well-being, and creating a legacy for our community.”
Other regional champions are united by a connection to the land and a desire to help their fellow citizens. Yoni Yefet Reich and Hudi Weinberg’s nonprofit, Amutat Kaima—the Jerusalem Nonprofit winner—helps Israeli teenagers who have left the school system find meaning, confidence, and stable work through farming. They hire these teens to help run small farms—five so far, with four in Israel and one in Tanzania—that sell their produce through a Community Supported Agriculture, or CSA, model.
In São Paulo, Tomás Abrahão started Raízs, a platform that connects Brazilian consumers with organic farmers to make it easier for them to access local produce. Buying directly from farmers also means that they keep more of the purchase price. Abrahão was inspired to start Raízs, a Business Venture finalist, after teaching school in a favela, in a city he calls “disconnected.”
“What is the point of our society as a whole,” he asks, “if we don’t even look at each other?”
For some contestants, the WeWork Creator awards offered a critical avenue to connect with fellow entrepreneurs and potential investors. Ma Yiliang, whose fetal-health tracker Modoo took the top honor in the Business Venture category at the Shanghai regional finals, noted that hearing the judges talk about his company—just having them say its name—was one of the best parts of the whole event. “It’s a dream come true,” he says. Queen of Raw’s Benedetto appreciated the opportunity to get advice from the judges. “Ashton [Kutcher] gave me some great ideas for the future,” she says.
But the material benefits are nothing to sneeze at, either: Cemal Ezel, whose London Nonprofit winner Change Please provides job training, housing, and employment to people experiencing homelessness, was also a Creator global finalist in 2017. That win netted Change Please a year’s membership at London’s WeWork 15 Bishopgate, which allowed them to channel the money they would have paid in renting office space to helping another 13 people get off the streets and become gainfully employed.
That kind of cyclical thinking—creative uses of resources of all kinds—is what characterizes all of the global finalists, who recognize that the work they do is in service of and collaboration with something much larger than themselves.
Wang Fang, who won the Nonprofit competition in Shanghai, knows she owes much to her daughter, Li Junru. After all, it was Li whose cerebral palsy inspired Fang to start Angel House, a space where children with CP can receive what she describes as “medical care through acts of compassion and unity.”
“I see my daughter as a creator also,” she explains, “because without her, Angel House would not exist.”
Growing from a few to a few hundred employees takes strategy and the right space.