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Attendees at SoGal Ottawa’s “To Be or Not To Be Tech” event. Photo: Tony Dib.

SoGal Ottawa Pitch Competition aims to change the face of local entrepreneurship

By Lisa Tanh on November 26, 2019

While studying for her master’s degree at the University of Southern California, Shanghai-born Pocket Sun attended several entrepreneurship events and always felt like an outsider.

In a TEDx Talk, she said, “Whenever I looked up at the stage or looked around me, it was clearly a man’s world. The judges were men. The keynote speakers were men. Most of the panelists were men. And the teams pitching on stage typically had five men, zero women. And one of the five would look a little bit like Mark Zuckerberg.”

Sun added that none of that was a coincidence, and that “venture capital investors love Harvard or Stanford dropouts who work on their startups in a garage because they see the next Facebook or see a younger version of themselves.”

After one event, Sun discovered that between 2011 and 2013, only 2.7% of venture capital money went to female CEOs (today that number has dropped to 2.2%). She asked herself, “What can I do to create a better environment for women entrepreneurs?” From there, she started the SoGal Foundation and hosted entrepreneurship events on campuses in cities across the U.S. and Asia. What differentiated her functions from others was her focus on supporting women and diverse entrepreneurs.

She later expanded the impact of the foundation by co-founding SoGal Ventures with Elizabeth Galbut, whom she met at a two-week venture program at Stanford University. SoGal Ventures became the world’s first female-led millennial venture capital firm and has invested in over 65 startups. The foundation still exists today and has over 40 chapters across five continents, including one here in Ottawa.

SoGal Ottawa chapter leads Nickie Shobeiry (L) and Zainab Muse (R). Photo: Mimi Do.

On November 28, local entrepreneurs Zainab Muse and Nickie Shobeiry will host the Ottawa regional round of SoGal’s global pitch competition. Candidates will pitch their business ideas to a panel of judges for a chance to enter the final round and attend a three-day educational boot camp in Silicon Valley. The regional finalists will meet top venture capitalists, receive one-on-one mentorship, and potentially win investment capital.

Muse says she discovered SoGal while on the hunt for venture capital firms that shared her values.

“To empower, mentor, and fund diverse entrepreneurs. In this case, ‘diverse’ means gender, industry, talent, and experience… I felt like in the entrepreneurship ecosystem, funding typically gets allocated to one persona of [an] entrepreneur, and that creates a skew in equality in the ecosystem.”

Shobeiry says that when Muse invited her to join in launching SoGal’s Ottawa chapter, she didn’t hesitate to say yes.

“I strive towards creating work that reflects individuals who may otherwise not see themselves represented in the media around them. By investing in diverse entrepreneurs, SoGal is creating blueprints for success for groups who don’t resonate with the ‘traditional’ image of entrepreneurship,” she says.

L to R: Rekha Rao-Mayya, event speaker and national technical director at Microsoft, an event attendee, and Zainab Muse, SoGal Ottawa chapter lead. Photo: Tony Dib.

SoGal panel judge Nolan Beanlands says when he started engaging with the SoGal community, he ended up meeting a whole new group of people that he had yet to connect with and that they’re impacting Ottawa in more ways than one.

“Not only are they supporting gender and ethnic diversity, they are also engaging with a diversity of companies, from consumer products to technology businesses to service companies. All entrepreneurs are welcome.”

Through his work as the executive director of the Capital Angel Network, he’s facilitated pitch sessions between investors and high-potential startups. His advice to candidates is not to be afraid to start pitching to anyone who will listen and that the more you practice, the more you’ll hone your message.

“The best pitches have a strong narrative element to them, people connect with stories,” Beanlands says.

Find Your Tribe’s “Off the Clock” event. Photo: Victoria Simba.

Find Your Tribe co-founders Naomi Haile and Samukele Ncube say they decided to enter the pitch competition because for the past 17 months they’ve been building a community for professionals of colour and are ready for the next stage. Find Your Tribe is an organization that prepares millennial professionals of colour to take their seats at the table through programming, networking events, and workshops. Their vision is to see more people of colour hold key leadership roles.

“Our idea in the next phase of our plan… is to create a community hub and co-working space, by people of colour, for everyone,” says Ncube. “This physical space will be designed to be inclusive and accessible so that all groups feel welcomed, valued, and that their ideas and voices matter. There are very few places in Ottawa that are designed inclusively, and to combat that, we are creating a space that will be the flagship for what true inclusivity should look like.”

L to R: Naomi Haile and Samukele Ncube. Photo provided.

Haile revealed the community hub and co-working space is called Inclusively and says, “The impact we are hoping this space has in Ottawa is to propel the inclusion conversation. A home where everyone, no matter who you are, can come together and feel like you are a part of something bigger than yourself. We want Inclusively to be an example for what an inclusive and accessible space can be.”

She says SoGal is changing the face of entrepreneurship and revolutionizing what it means to be an entrepreneur, particularly in Ottawa.

“We need movements and strong messaging in Ottawa that is geared to empower under-represented groups to own their truth and power. It’s brought women and diverse founders closer. Since Zainab and Nickie brought SoGal to Ottawa, I’ve met some of the brightest and passionate creators, builders, and artists. I believe it’s brought a new-found richness to a lot of people’s lives while changing their perceptions of what’s possible for them.”


SoGal Ottawa’s pitch competition will take place on November 28 at CanvasPop (6 Hamilton Ave) from 6–8:30pm. Visit their website for registration and more information. RSVP on Facebook for social media updates.