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Fast and Furious: Pitching Social Innovation to Impact Investors

By Wendy K. Leigh

So what were YOU doing at age 13?

It was a fair enough question raised by emcee Julie Pham as she introduced a tiny wisp of a girl who bounded onto the McCaw Hall stage at Fast Pitch 2016. Dynamo Belle Pan, founder of iRummage, put us all to shame with her quick wit, masterful command of presentation technology and an entrepreneurial spirit boldly soliciting the biggest names in Seattle’s community of philanthropic leaders and impact investors to fund the social innovation project she began two years ago as an 11-year-old sixth-grader.

Belle was one of 14 community-oriented innovators competing in the final round of Fast Pitch, a program by Social Venture Partners Seattle (SVP) that facilitates funding for projects addressing social needs. From a pool of 170 students, nonprofits and for-profit enterprises pitching their ideas starting in June 2016, the remaining game-changers on October 25th swept one by one onto the stage to unveil technology and boots-on-the-ground solutions for social issues such as homelessness, school funding, legal access and prison inmate reformation.

Belle Pan of iRummage Presents at Fast Pitch 2016. Photo by author.

Belle Pan of iRummage Presents at Fast Pitch 2016. Photo by author.

With judges and/or funding from the likes of Starbucks, Comcast NBCUniversal, Microsoft, Uber, BECU and Google, projects making it to the final round had a real chance to make their dreams a reality – or at least take them to the next level. Nine overall winners high-fived presenters over life-sized checks, some juggling more than one before the evening ended. In addition to SVP winners, there were impact donor and audience choice awards, as well as named corporate awards.

iRummage, founded by Belle Pan, now an eighth-grader at Lakeside School in Seattle, was a favorite winner of the night, taking home both the 1st Place High School Venture award and the BECU Financial Empowerment Award. iRummage is an online donation platform for buying and selling goods that benefit schools in the Seattle region.

Similar to the technology platform employed by Bellevue company Offer Up, the iRummage app and website facilitates the exchange of goods between buyers and sellers – but the proceeds go to specified schools that join the program. Another component of iRummage gives it a depth that judges were quick to recognize: a hands-on platform for children to learn about business practices from a very young age. The school campaigns are actually run by the students themselves and organized with standard business structures; there’s a school CEO, CTO and CFO.

“We’re going to train 100,000 10-year old CEOs,” explained Pan, without a sliver of doubt in her voice. “And in a few years, they’ll be equipped to start their own billion-dollar companies.”

Solutions for addressing the needs of Seattle’s homeless population were also big winners of the Fast Pitch 2016 competition. WeCount, an online donor matching program providing specified items for the homeless, received multiple awards, including the Comcast NBCUniversal Technology Innovation Award. Through its community initiative programs, Comcast seeks out individuals or groups that harness the power of technology to connect communities and make a positive impact on society.

Comcast presents WeCount with a Fast Pitch award . Photo by author.

Comcast presents WeCount with a Fast Pitch award . Photo by author.

According to WeCount, King County has the third-largest homeless population in the country, with as many as 10,000 homeless people on any given night. Standing on the stage at McCaw Hall, Graham Pruss, executive director and co-founder of WeCount, held up a quarter and quickly personalized his project with a tale of how a simple quarter in a time of need put him on the road from homelessness to a productive life.

Through WeCount, he now taps into the peer-to-peer service economy model to connect those with extra “stuff” to individuals in the homeless community with specific needs for the items.

Giving someone a backpack might not end homelessness, but it may start a conversation that secures services that may save a life,” states WeCount.

GiveSafe, another project at FastPitch, makes giving to individuals on the street as simple as a tap on an app through a smartphone. See a person in need holding up a sign on the street? If he’s wearing a tiny Bluetooth beacon necklace from GiveSafe and you have the associated smartphone app, you’ll get a notification with some information on the person’s story. You then have the option to give a dollar or more, which the homeless person can use at dedicated venues for items such as food, a haircut, bus fare or clothing.

Safecase Founder Annie Roethe. Photo by author.

Safecase Founder Annie Roethe. Photo by author.

Other innovative fast-pitchers getting an infusion of donor dollars include SafeCase, providing instant date rape protection through a smartphone case harboring thin strips that detect date rape drugs such as ketamine and GHB (gamma hydroxybutyric acid); Yoga Behind Bars, which equips incarcerated individuals with the physical and mental tools to change their lives from the inside out; and ATJ Tech Fellows, a legal fellowship program that trains law students in using technology to cut costs and increase legal access, while also improving delivery to ordinary people.