Investor Profile: Prabha Dublish & Derek Tu, Co-Founders of Womentum
A few months ago, I met in a coffee shop with Prabha Dublish and Derek Tu, students at Babson, who launched a nonprofit called Womentum. With a founding team made up of 3 Babson undergrads, the impact-driven non-profit is well on it’s way towards creating meaningful impact for women in developing countries around the world. Their platform, built up by effective use of their network and the vast network of student resources in Boston, has enabled foundations and donors alike to invest as little as $200 to $400 to provide a meaningful impact on a woman’s life and in so doing, her family and community.
I had the chance to speak with two of the company’s co-founders, Prabha Dublish and Derek Tu, about this incredible company and what they have accomplished thus far.
Nina Stepanov: Tell me about your background - where did you both grow up and what lead you to start Womentum?
Prabha Dublish: I was originally born in Delhi, India but I moved to Seattle when I was 3 years old. I’ve always been very passionate about social impact, but in high school it was just a side passion because I didn’t know it could be a career. When I came to Babson, my perception changed after learning more about what it meant to be a social entrepreneur. In my freshman year, I wondered what the power of entrepreneurship is in underprivileged communities around the world. When going to business school, you hear all the time about people who’ve started incredible businesses and who’ve come from Babson, with all of it’s resources, but I wondered about communities that don’t have that same access.
When I was in my freshman year summer, I didn’t want to be a coffee-running intern; I wanted to do something meaningful. Meanwhile, after seeing the power of entrepreneurship in changing people’s lives, I wanted to see what it’s effect was in rural areas of the world where the need was actually need-based as opposed to just a desire or want. I went to Northern India where I met with many women entrepreneurs who made it clear to me that entrepreneurship is extremely powerful in this context. These women had a new sense of confidence. They were contributing to their household income and could see the impact they had. They even took up social issues. One of my favorite stories of this involved an illegal liquor store in one of the villages that the women were fed up with because men would get incredibly drunk and harass women of the community. So a handful of these women came together to tear down the liquor stores. When the police showed up there was nothing they could do about it because they were illegal anyway.
There are many financial barriers that women in these communities face, they can’t just go to a bank to get a loan. Many of them can’t read or write. On the flip side, so many of their families look down on them for wanting to do it in the first place. Many women have to go behind their husbands backs to learn a skill that they need. Some even took land from their families when they wouldn’t give it to them and now they don’t speak to each other. All of these things that you think wouldn’t happen are actually prevalent in these communities. I realized from all of this that it had to be fixed.
Derek Tu: I grew up in Chicago with our third co-founder, Aaron Leon. In high school, I was interested in entrepreneurship first and foremost. I was involved with an eCommerce platform that a friend of mine started where we sold compost bins that you could install in your home. I also had my first internship at a social impact investing firm based in Southeast Asia where I had my first exposure to leveraging capital to drive social change. All of that sparked my interest in social entrepreneurship. Then in college, I had the opportunity to intern for several marketing companies in product management roles and was able to piece together what it means to be in tech but at the same time, I worked at nonprofits during the school year. That got me thinking about how to marry the two because startups are all about efficiency but many nonprofits are quite inefficient; they’re not lean and there’s a stigma against nonprofits not actually making an impact. I wanted to change that perception. With Prabha having gone to india, everything came together at the right time with. We started talking about this idea and realized there was something there, that we could create meaningful impact, so we went for it.
Our third co-founder Aaron, is one of my best childhood friends. He’s very invested in social impact and attends many hackathons where the topic is social impact. We were looking for a technical co-founder to build the platform that we envisioned and he was looking for something to do with his time so it was perfect timing.
NS: Who are your mentors and advisors?
PD: I have a mentor in the WINlab named Kim Miles and countless professors and advisors in the industry that we rely on heavily but we’re currently working towards building our board.
DT: One individual who’s been extremely helpful in the past year is Kelly Uller, a Babson alum who worked at Bain Capital as VP of Finance. She’s been very helpful in framing the financial aspect of Womentum. Helping us figure out how to build checkpoints to make sure the money is going where it’s supposed to go so we can implement that pay-it-forward model that we envisioned for Womentum.
NS: Tell me about Womentum. What problem are you trying to solve? Why is Womentum the one to solve it instead of others like Kiva and Grameen Bank?
PD: Womentum is a crowdfunding platform for women entrepreneurs in developing countries. We are doing things a bit different than what you’d typically see from others in the microfinancing field, such as Kiva and Grameen. We’re not a microloan platform, we’re a pay-it-forward platform. Meaning that if you were to make a donation on our platform you would not receive your money back, rather when the woman entrepreneur becomes successful, she then pays-it-forward for other entrepreneurs in their communities.
We’re trying to build communities of women supporting women around the world. Our target market is primarily women entrepreneurs living in poverty or developing countries. We don’t necessarily have a criteria for what that would be but we’re typically looking for businesses where women can do a lot with just $200 to $400.
NS: How do you know the money is making it to them? How do you make sure they’re using it for what they said they would?
DT: We rely heavily on the partners that we form in these developing countries. Money goes through them to the women entrepreneurs that we’re trying to fund. The partnerships we’ve built in these countries are usually a women-empowerment or entrepreneurship organization. They have an existing network that we tap into and act as a filter to source the most qualified entrepreneurs and best fits for funding. We have an internal system where we ask for references who will vouch for the women and we ask for a National Identification Number as well. There are many checkpoints in place to ensure that money is being handled properly. It’s a difficult process because you have to balance asking for information versus just going ahead and funding someone or solidifying a partnership. That’s a struggle that we face as an early-stage nonprofit because we don’t want bureaucracy to limit the pace. It’s a fine balance but we’re making it work.
NS: How did you get Womentum off the ground?
PD: If you think about it as a timeline, we had the initial ideas in December 2015. We thought we could do it on our own, so we started to reach out to partners while we waited for tax exemption status, which takes a while. We utilized our current network to find partners and I already knew an entrepreneur named Savitha from Orora Global who had gone to Babson and was running a business in India where she empowers women to sell solar lamps. That was our first partnership. We started to reach out to more and found countless partners, so we started to develop a criteria that we thought met what we were looking for and needed. We spent a lot of time designing the website as well. Aaron build it from scratch based exactly on what we needed and wanted. The final piece was creating the initial hype. We threw up a temporary landing page in the interim and used Facebook to tell friends and family. We had a few articles written about us for the launch, which was incredibly helpful. All of this took roughly 4 months, when we launched in April 2016.
NS: You’re all currently students at Babson, how has that affected your business and being a founder?
PD: It can be difficult at times because the nonprofit space is typically made up of an older population. Often times these are organizations that have been around for 30 to 40 years and have well established funding sources and established donors and processes. As a nonprofit startup founded by students, we are often not taken as seriously as other more established companies are. Additionally, looking at our peers, we have many friends running startups but not nearly as many running nonprofit startups. Our mentality around ideas are often different than our friends but we have found ways to get over that and move forward.
DT: Think about how many millennials come to mind as successful social impact founders. Not many. There are an incredible number of young startup founders not in the nonprofit industry who are immortalized by the media. When you think about it from an infrastructure perspective, you have programs like TechStars and Y Combinator who teach people how to be successful founders, but there isn’t that infrastructure in place for nonprofits. There are playbooks about how to start a successful for-profit business but not for nonprofits...yet. Much of what we do is trailblazing and figuring out what we can take from the for-profit industry and utilize ourselves in the nonprofit industry.
Boston’s student startup ecosystem has been incredibly supportive, from Babson to Boston as a whole. The relationships we’ve formed with people from Northeastern, Boston College, Boston University, Harvard and MIT is something that you can’t replicate anywhere else. That exact same community is what we’re trying to bring to women entrepreneurs all around the world. Prabha was in the WINlab which helped accelerate our growth quite a bit and we have the Lewis Institute, which is the hub at Babson for social innovation.
NS: How do you sustain the company?
DT: We rely on a mix of different donations. We get support from foundations but most of our funding comes from individual donors. We have a model where donors can give directly to an entrepreneur or they can fund our operations. We call it a “tip.” When donors go on our platform to donate to an entrepreneur they can make a “tip” to Womentum as well, which helps cover operations and transaction fees, which helps. We’ve also won a handful of pitch competitions, which have helped us with operational costs. Many organizations have discounts and in-kind donations for nonprofits as well. Regardless, moving forward we’re going to try to diversify our funding mix.
NS: What’s next for Womentum?
PD: We’re looking to ramp up in terms of the number of women we’re funding. We’ve so far funded 24 women entrepreneurs in 6 different countries with our first woman paying it forward just a few weeks ago. We have a handful of amazing corporate partnerships and we’ve nailed down our processes that help us fund more women. Our goal is to hit 100 funded women entrepreneurs by the end of the year. Looking forward, we also want to implement community development programs. Currently, we’re only able to fund women entrepreneurs that are associated with these organizations and programs that work on the ground but there are many women who don’t necessarily have those resources to rely on or help them. We’d like to be that first step in the process where we go to their communities and support on a fundamental basis to educate them about what entrepreneurship is and enable them to get funding on our platform as well.
We’re also looking into creating a revenue stream. Our funding mix has been working really well but we know that being fully reliant on donations as a nonprofit can be very difficult so we’re working on a handful of ideas to make ourselves sustainable moving forward.
Images courtesy of Womentum.