When Jobs for the Future (JFF) first sent out its application for the Horizons Without Limits Conference pitch competition, Marcus (Flikshop CEO/Founder) showed me the email and asked if I thought we should apply. As a thriving entrepreneur, Marcus has this pitch thing down. It sounded like a great fit!
It doesn’t matter who is in the room with Marcus – investors, legislators, or board members –
I would call him the pitch expert. He tells a compelling story highlighting a shared value among a group, presents a problem with a defined solution, and then creates a realistic and inspiring call to action, all conveyed with a personality and energy that hardly anyone can deny.
This pitch competition was the first of its kind to be offered within JFF’s annual Horizons conference. As soon as I saw the theme, my mind started to race. The pitch competition was based around the idea of “Investing in Human Potential.” Being impacted by the legal system ourselves, Marcus and I felt strongly about the frequent underestimated potential of those who are currently or previously incarcerated.
The Flikshop team has seen firsthand people with criminal backgrounds rise to great heights as overcomers, be that in the field of business, education, advocacy, community leadership, and more. And we also had an innovative product on the back burner that we knew could provide pathways to success for this group.
When I put 2+2 together – potential + innovation – I knew we had to apply.
Before I could even think, I blurted out, “Let’s apply! But if we’re selected, can I do it?”
Marcus leaned back in his office chair. He had raised eyebrows and an amused smile on his face. As the non-pitch-expert, I was not the obvious choice for this task. Without missing a beat he responded, “Absolutely! And I’ll be there to support you.”
[Shout out to the leaders who encourage and open doors for their team to stretch and grow]
I immediately began to develop our pitch. The product we wanted to introduce was FlikshopVR. FlikshopVR is an immersive learning tool for use in correctional institutions. This tool would allow individuals in prison to access and participate in our entrepreneurship curriculum developed through the Flikshop School of Business (FSB).
Our prototype would focus primarily on
simulations targeting the three primary barriers to reentry:
Each simulation would allow the incarcerated scholar to view a positive performance of someone navigating applying for housing, a job interview etc, and then the opportunity to navigate that scenario themselves.
We felt strongly that learning to navigate these scenarios prior to release would empower men and women as they returned home to effectively overcome the largest challenges they would face. What was even more exciting, was the capacity for expansion this tool could offer, building on that untapped human potential that went so overlooked in our nation’s prisons. Expansions of this tool would include virtual visitation with family, access to other vetted educational programming, meditation, access to legal and law libraries, correctional services like canteen ordering, and more.
Working alongside University of Maryland’s (College Park) Lab for Applied Social Sciences Research, we had already developed some early prototypes of an immersive FSB classroom experience. With goggles and hand controllers, scholars would be visually immersed in an actual classroom with the instructor present in front of them. They would have the ability to participate in the lesson by responding with gestures using hand controllers.
Cultivating a pitch for submission was an exciting new undertaking for me, as I was passionate that our product would positively impact so many people. We were thrilled when Flikshop.VR was selected as both semi-finalists and later, finalists for JFF’s pitch competition.
As the date for the Beyond Horizons Conference drew closer, I was grateful for additional editing and feedback from Marcus, but also for valuable mentoring sessions with JFF’s team member, Heather Terenzio and Gopika Mavalankar.
As an over-preparer I had been revising our slides and meticulously memorizing our pitch script for weeks. I practiced my pitch in the car, on the train, and in the shower, for willing audiences such as my husband and son, and on walks with our dog, Cooper. As the time of the conference arrived, I knew I was prepared as I could be. I was excited for an opportunity to learn and grow, but remained nervous over the experience itself.
The JFF Beyond Horizons Conference was amazing. I attended as many plenaries, sessions, and panels as I possibly could, hearing speakers like Nikole Hannah-Jones, Abigail Disney, Gov. Larry Hogan, and so so much more. I was thrilled and encouraged over the inclusion of the justice-affected community in so much of the content and felt like the conference experience alone had made the trip more than worthwhile.
The day of the pitch competition I was excited to meet fellow finalists and a little relieved to discover that many of them were nervous, too. So many worthwhile projects and business proposals were pitched during our session. From offering doula services to women of color facing maternal health disparities, to empowering lower to middle-class individuals to establish financial emergency security, to helping school administration support hardworking teachers, these finalists were filled with passion and determination. As each finalist delivered their pitch, we encouraged one another with reassuring smiles.
I stepped to the front, saw Marcus’ wide grin, and the support of some dear friends, and launched into our well practiced pitch. The judges nodded with empathetic eyes and comforting smiles, and I was grateful for their non-Shark Tank stance. I felt like I had done my best, and after sitting down, felt proud of myself for trying something new and taking on a new learning experience no matter what happened.
Fast forward 24 hours later and somehow I am backstage with the kind judges I mentioned earlier. We won! We did it!
Flikshop was being honored with a giant check that would fund our immersive learning tool, launching us towards greater impact with our innovation. I could not believe that out of all the amazing pitches I had heard the day prior, we had been selected! My heart beat quickly, my name was called as the Pitch Competition Winner, and Flikshop was handed a giant cardboard check, just like you see on the news with lottery winners.
But this was even better than winning the lottery. I had the confidence that these funds
would go to help our community of incarcerated neighbors, full of ingenuity and capability however underestimated they might be by the rest of society. I could not wait to get home, share this with our team, and get started.
Under the blue stage lights and before a thousand conference attendees, I could not stop smiling. Impact matters far more than accolades and awards, and I am grateful to JFF for choosing to invest in our efforts to invest in human potential.