Every summer for the past nine years, startup companies from Massachusetts and around the world have converged on Boston to compete in MassChallenge.
The four-month program offers cash prizes to promising new ventures in technology, life science and other industries, while providing business advice along the way. And this year, for the first time, a majority of the teams include a woman.
Entrepreneurs from 128 startups are vying for more than $1 million in total prize money at MassChallenge, but Katia Powell said she is getting something more valuable. She’s the founder of Black Girls Nutrition, which creates personalized weight-loss plans for women of color.
“It is a competition; we get it. But the money that you would win — which I do want to win — is short runway,” she said. “It’s about building relationships for the short- and long-term.”
In previous years, most of the startup teams building those relationships — and taking a shot at the pot of money — were all-male. But not this year.
“Fifty-one percent of our startups have at least one female co-founder,” said Kiki Mills Johnston, managing director of MassChallenge Boston. “So we’ve never broken that mark before. So we were really, really proud of that.”
It would have been easy enough for Mills Johnston and the program’s organizers to impose a gender quota on this year’s cohort, but they didn’t. Instead, they made a point to involve more women in the judging process. From there, Johnston said, an increase in female founders happened naturally.
“The thing that we can do is to identify and ensure that our judging panels are as diverse as possible, have as much expertise as possible and, you know, have very different types of people on these panels,” Mills Johnston explained. “And so to get into MassChallenge is still based on merit. It’s not as if we say, ‘OK,we’re trying to get X percent in.’ It is a hard program to get into.”
Pat Hubbell made the cut, along with her co-founder, Pete Sukits. Their startup is called Candorful, and they help military veterans hone interview skills when applying for civilian jobs. Sukits is a veteran; Hubbell is not. But she said she can empathize with the challenge of a career transition.
“You know, I was a re-entering mom once,” Hubbell said. “I have a Sloan degree. I have an undergrad engineering degree, and I still struggled with the transitions back.”
Now, Hubbell is among the growing number of women transitioning into the role of MassChallenge finalist. She and all the finalists show off their products Thursday night, when MassChallenge hosts a showcase event at its Seaport headquarters.