How One Startup Accelerator Is Giving Social Impact a Spotlight

From crowdfunding legal defenses to helping immigrants and ex-cons, Venture Capital allows fledgling business the chance to develop and help underserved populations.

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By Dennis Price

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Ann DeRosa of Chilton Capital had only one question after hearing the pitch from Brian Ferguson, founder of Start Line, a sort of Yelp for former inmates to help with their re-entry to society. "Just tell me, what do you need?"

Ferguson and nine other entrepreneurs were on stage in Oakland, Calif., at the FinTech Forum. Village Capital, the mission-driven startup accelerator and investor, has staged similar events in New York, Atlanta and Los Angeles to showcase and support entrepreneurs who are working to expand financial services to low-wealth communities. In the U.S. alone, more than 100 million people, or one third of the population are "underbanked," or otherwise have limited access to banks and mainstream financial services, the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC) says.

"We believe that the entrepreneurs that understand these problems the most, that are most likely to build the best solutions, are the ones with personal experience with under-banked communities," said Ross Baird, executive director of Village Capital.

Related: This Group Aims to Level the Playing Field for Men and Women Business Owners Around the World

The forum gave the floor to companies like Crowd Defend, a legal defense crowdfunding platform with the goal of expanding access to justice to those who can't afford it. It highlighted startups like RemitRight, a cost-comparison site for remittances, aimed at increasing trust and lowering costs for immigrants sending money home.

"The presentations tonight were some of the best I've ever seen," said Carla Mays, who advises investment funds and public agencies on innovation and diversity and who sat on the panel. "These are the right people who understand the issues facing their communities."

Village Capital recruited startups co-founded by women and minorities, two groups of entrepreneurs that -- according to studies -- are less likely to receive the venture capital often necessary to grow their businesses. The series was timed ahead of the close of applications for Village Capital and eBay Foundation's FinTech US accelerator program, coming this summer.

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Village Capital partnered with the eBay Foundation, the Kapor Center for Social Impact, the Center for Financial Innovations (CFSI), and Core Innovation Capital to put on the series that combines a half-day of business development training and one-on-one mentorship for the entrepreneurs followed by an evening pitch session. A panel representing investors and customers gave feedback and showered the pitching founders with questions.

The audience selected one winner, the entrepreneurs themselves selected the other. Brian Ferguson, and Start Line, took both awards, netting him $2,000 and an automatic final round bid for the full program. Ferguson had a powerful story: He was released from prison two years ago after a wrongful homicide conviction was overturned. The ordeal wiped out his dreams of law school and his 20s.

Ferguson told the audience, "If everyone in this room had just been released from prison, within five years, eight out of 10 of us would be re-arrested," said Ferguson during his presentation.

"I took the red eye out here last night. I couldn't miss the opportunity to participate," Ferguson said after the presentation. "Where else would I have access to insights from other founders and mentors that have experienced similar issues to the ones I'm facing?"

Related: This Firm Keeps Capital Flowing to Micro-Entrepreneurs

Powered by ImpactAlpha and the Case Foundation.

One of a series of impact profiles produced in conjunction with the Case Foundation's new publication, "A Short Guide to Impact Investing."

Dennis Price

Social Impact Strategist, Contributing Writer at

Based in Oakland, Calif., Dennis Price is a social impact strategist who works with mission-driven investors and entrepreneurs to enhance, measure, and communicate their impact. He's a research consultant for Media Development Investment Fund and a co-founder and board director at 118 Capital.

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