NJ Regional InnovateHER Features NJ Women Entrepreneurs Seeking to Make a Difference

Photo: InnovateHER participants Photo Credit: Esther Surden
InnovateHER participants | Esther Surden

Niru Mallavarupu, cofounder, CEO and CTO of MobileArq (Summit), took home the top honors at the InnovateHER pitch contest that took place at New Jersey Institute of Technology (NJIT) on Nov. 17. Mallavarupu is no stranger to the New Jersey tech startup scene: MobileArq was part of the TechLaunch accelerator.

MobileArq starts off with a simple premise: Parent-teacher organizations (PTOs) are ready to replace their old student directories with an online system that’s easy to update and, additionally, has fund-raising opportunities built in.

Photo: Niru Mallavarupu, cofounder, CEO and CTO of MobileArq Photo Credit: Esther Surden
Niru Mallavarupu, cofounder, CEO and CTO of MobileArq | Esther Surden

PTOs “spend an inordinate amount of time creating the directory and changing it” when membership changes, not to mention collecting checks from parents, getting sponsors and doing manual bookkeeping, said Mallavarupu. So MobileArq created an entire membership management and communications platform for PTOs. MobileArq now has 45 schools and 45,000 users on the system, she said.

The InnovateHER event was sponsored by Great Turning Advisors (Randolph), an accelerator for social entrepreneurs, and The Superbwoman (Montclair), a coaching service that empowers women entrepreneurs. Steven G. Boughton, founder and president of Great Turning Advisors, and Janet M. Neal, founder of Superbwoman, offered some welcoming remarks. 

InnovateHER is a national competition put on by the U. S. Small Business Administration (SBA) in collaboration with Microsoft. The intention is to provide funding for businesses founded by women entrepreneurs.

“This year is a little different in that it is for solutions that will benefit women and families. These competitions are being held all over the country,” said Neal. Two or three others have also taken place in New Jersey, and the winner of the state competition will go on to the semifinals. The judges will then narrow down the winners to the top 10, who will present in Washington, D.C., in March.

The SBA recognizes that the fastest-growing group of business owners is women, said Richard G. Zilg, assistant district director of the SBA’s New Jersey office. The contestants are judged according to three criteria. A business must offer a product or service that (i) has a measurable impact on women or their services, (ii) has a potential for commercialization, and (iii) fills a need out there in the marketplace.

The judges were: Donna Miller founder and president of C3Workplace, a coworking facility in Montclair and Sparta; Arnaldo Carrera, an entrepreneur and managing partner of the Strategic Business Alliance (Montclair); and Jerry Creighton Sr., executive director of the NJIT Enterprise Development Center (Newark).

Photo: Nichele Santos-Sanders of Footprints and Legacy Photo Credit: Esther Surden
Nichele Santos-Sanders of Footprints and Legacy | Esther Surden

Nichele Santos-Sanders (Freehold) was first up to the podium to talk about the startup she founded, Footprints & Legacy (the website is still under development), which will help women who have experienced trauma such as the loss of a loved one. Santos-Sanders formed the company in response to her own tragic loss: the murder of her mother at the hand of her father.

Santos-Sanders said that her company has “created an exciting new way to leave a digital footprint for our lost loved ones.” She explained that it is natural for people to feel sympathy after they read a story about a violent loss, and it is natural for them to want to help. “Our mission is to create an Internet presence memorializing our loved ones. …We will also share in the victories, where tragedy is turned into a story of survival.” In addition, she wants to create communities based on specific kinds of loss, such as those due to illness or domestic violence. Santos-Sander envisions Footprints & Legacy as a crowdfunding platform that will help support the children or others left behind. Children in these circumstances need attorneys, special advisors, counselling and many other services that could be endowed in a loved one’s name, she said.

Helena van der Merwe, founder of A-Plus-Consulting (Newark), said her company is working on finding solutions to two big problems, one involving technology and the other involving autism. Technology drives 40 percent of our GDP in the U.S., and there is a big imbalance in supply and demand. Some folks see technology as too challenging. Others think they aren’t prepared because they haven’t learned how to code in high school.

Photo: Helena van der Merwe, founder of A-Plus-Consulting Photo Credit: Esther Surden
Helena van der Merwe, founder of A-Plus-Consulting | Esther Surden

The other problem, autism, is a huge one for the country and the state. In New Jersey, one in 45 children has autism, according to van der Merwe. Only 6 percent of autistic adults hold full-time paid jobs, she said. After being asked to support a school with an autism focus, van der Merwe thought she could merge her interests by creating a school for social media marketing for folks with autism. She’ll soon be rolling out a new platform that matches interns with jobs, and has started talking with investors to raise money for the autism initiative. She is also seeking a sponsor to work with her on a pilot study to see if adults with autism can be trained in social media marketing. And she’s looking for an employer who uses paid interns to do this kind of work.

Winnie Phelan Scuteri and Lisa Fielding, cofounders of The Office Mill, in historic downtown Clinton, talked about their coworking space, which has been open since May 2015. “We’re not one of these large high-tech coworking spaces. We’re a boutique, we’re small and women love us,” said Fielding. In fact, The Office Mill caters primarily to women, and features a fully equipped office geared to self-employed people or remote workers. “Within the coworking space, you find community and collaboration.”

Photo: Lisa Fielding pitched for The Office Mill.
  Photo Credit: Esther Surden
Lisa Fielding pitched for The Office Mill.
  | Esther Surden

 There is a need for a place where women can meet with clients, and it has to be affordable for “mompreneurs” as well, she said. Fielding pointed out that The Office Mill has all the technology anyone could want, including every adaptor imaginable. Coworking spaces usually become profitable between the first and second year, she noted.

“We have an impact on women. Women can work near their children’s schools. Our local K-8 school is within walking distance to our office,” she added. The high school is only one mile away, and the school bus stops nearby.

The Office Mill has a monthly membership fee, like a gym, with several levels of membership, depending on how many days a month a member wants to use the facility. “Our capacity is about 25 members, and we can be profitable with about 15 members,” Fielding said. Other areas of profitability include conference room rentals and after-hour space rentals. Also, “we’re working on bringing in classes.”

Photo: Dawn Nichols of Caught Being Good Photo Credit: Esther Surden
Dawn Nichols of Caught Being Good | Esther Surden

Dawn Nichols, of Florham Park, pitched an app called “Caught Being Good,” which uses intermittent positive reinforcement to help parents change their children’s behavior. Using this technique “builds up a foundation that continues into the teenage years, which can be challenging to parents,” she said. Rewards should be intermittent because if your child makes his bed every day, and every day you give him a reward, the moment you don’t give a reward is the day he doesn’t make the bed, she said. Nichols explained that she had been applying this technique to her own children, even using charts and graphs, when she realized that an app would work better.

She demonstrated the app for the judges, showing a wheel that a child can spin to get an award once a parent has caught the child in the act of being good. Virtual “bank accounts” keep track of earned rewards for multiple children.  The app is initially 99 cents in the Apple App store, and is customizable for teachers. Nichols said that she would use the prize money and any additional funding to rework the current app to segment it by age group, to better target the littlest users. “We’ll start with the smallest children, so we can add images for them.” She would also beef up the analytics and develop an app for Android. And she’d like to hire a team. “Right now it’s me in my basement,” she told the audience.

She also has some ideas on how to get the app to the next level and increase the number of users, such as using it as a fundraising tool for PTAs and churches for a higher price. And she noted that all the revenue from a fundraising effort would be turned over to the organization.

Nichols reminded the audience that changing parental behavior is very difficult, so “we want to get to those parents when they are first developing those behaviors, and shape their parenting style.” Moms could also sell the app to groups of other moms.

Finally, she plans to make money through affiliate deals with brands, so kids could spin the wheel and go to Baskin-Robins, for example, rather get just any sort of ice cream cone.

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