What if you only have 1 minute to summarize your entire business?
Pitching ideas or companies has the same principle as a cover letter: keep it short and sweet. It may sound simple, but condensing your startup’s mission or your newest investment opportunity to higher-ups is a lot harder than it seems. But it’s important, regardless of whether you’re pitching to others, to understand the very core of your business’ impact. So how would you use your 60 seconds to impress a panel of judges?
Elizabeth Lindsey is the executive director of Byte Back, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit that provides free technology education and career training to unemployed adults. In 2017, she competed in the WeWork Creator Awards Pitch Competition (with NYC Regional finals coming up on November 16th!) where she won the top prize of $360,000 for Byte Back . She's been named a 2017 Tech Titan by The Washingtonian and a DC Inno 50 on Fire winner. She serves as an organizer for DC Tech Meetup, which has over 21,000 members.
I recently interviewed Elizabeth for the LEADx Podcast, where she discussed how Byte Back finds its students, and how she won the coveted WeWork Creator Award. (The interview below has been lightly edited for space and clarity.)
Kevin Kruse: If I were to show up at Byte Back, what would I see? Do you have a classroom, or is it night classes?
Elizabeth Lindsey: That's a great question. We just moved into a brand new headquarter, so you should come and visit us some day, and we have four training classrooms in our headquarters that are full of computers, and we have instructors who teach the classes. We also have a really amazing video studio where we're able to record lessons for our students. If you were to come into Byte Back, you would join one of the classes that's at your level. We assess people to determine are they at the beginner level, are they at intermediate, are they ready to go into more of that training that prepares them for work?
Then based on the level, your class would be anywhere from six weeks, four hours a week, all the way up to three or four months for the more advanced levels. We offer classes day and night, we offer classes on the weekends, and we also offer classes not just here at Byte Back but at sites across DC as well as suburban DC in Prince George's County, Maryland because we really believe in meeting people where they are, not just in terms of their level, but also being very accessible so our location is on the metro, it's on multiple bus lines, and we also teach in neighborhoods where our students live.
Kruse: How do you promote your services and how do people find out about what you have to offer?
Lindsey: Great question. It's really a mix of things. We find our students through a variety of different ways. We've been around for 20 years, so word of mouth is a big referral source for us, People tell their friends and their neighbors and their coworkers about Byte Back.
We also work a lot with other nonprofit and community partners, so we will work at, we will go to other nonprofits that train or support people who are similar to Byte Back students, people who might be interested in coming to Byte Back, and we into their spaces and recruit from there.
We also have a really amazing partnership with DC Public Library, so we teach in library sites, and we recruit through the library System. We do some Facebook marketing, and we also run bus and metro ads as well, so we have a pretty wide range of ways that we are doing outreach for our program.
Kruse: There's a big drop off of students enrolling in traditional universities. Do you struggle with that? Do you find your students self-motivated?
Lindsey: Right, so I've done a lot of reading on that drop-out rate too, and what a lot of the data shows or interviews show is that one of the reasons people are dropping out is because they really have challenges and needs that aren't being met. We really take seriously helping our students address some of the personal barriers that might hinder them from finishing a class at Byte Back.
We work one on one with our students and help refer them to different social services. Many of our students struggle with housing, having secure housing, they struggle with affording transportation, they struggle with paying for child care, so we really help them to identify resources so that they can really focus on coming to Byte Back and learning.
We have about 75% completion rate, which I think is really great. Many of our students have never gone to college. Most of our students have never gone to college. For many, this is something that they're doing on top of taking care of their families or working part-time or working nights or just struggle with so many of the challenges that people living in poverty face. We have really focused and invested in supporting them so that they can succeed here.
We make it clear to everyone that they are welcome to come back, and we do have a good number of people who, once their personal situation is improved, do come back to Byte Back and complete.
Kruse: You won the top prize in the Scale category for the WeWork Creator Awards. What was that like and why do you think you ended up winning?
Lindsey: Sure. WeWork is an incredible startup company that is extremely successful. WeWork provides coworking spaces and helps build community in cities across the world.
Back in March, I just happened to read one of our local tech blogs that WeWork was giving away 20 million dollars globally to creators, so to any interesting ideas, interesting companies, or organizations. They were holding their very first Creator Awards here in DC. We decided to apply. We're like, we'll just throw a hat in a ring, you never know. We applied online and found out that we were a finalist, and what that meant is that we were invited to go to the very first Creator Awards, which is this incredible night of music and community and a competition.
We were told we were to pitch Byte Back, a five-minute pitch in front of a panel of judges, so I worked with my team for about a week, we didn't have much notice, for about a week, really preparing, even Googling what a pitch is. I'd never pitched before in my life. I mean, I spent in my career in government nonprofit. Luckily, there are a lot of YouTube videos out of Silicon Valley about how to do a pitch. Practice, practice, practiced. Went to the WeWork Creator Awards. I pitched Byte Back and what we do in front of the panel of five judges, and then as one of the next round of finalists, I had to do a one-minute pitch in front of an auditorium full of people. There are probably a thousand people in this room including Adam Neumann who's one of the co-founders of WeWork and the CEO. It was an incredible experience. Like I said, it was my first time pitching but I felt really prepared, and the judges were incredible. They were people who were local leaders in business and entrepreneurship and WeWork executives, and they really got that Byte Back is an organization that's doing something unique. We talk about diversity in tech, and we talk about shortages in tech workers, and we're one of the few organizations where someone can come who has no tech skills, and we help them from that very beginner level, and we help them get the skills they need to actually move into a job in technology.
We're not only diversifying tech, but we're also giving our students this amazing chance to access the opportunities that are available in the tech sector and to really change their lives.
Kruse: How many groups do you think pitched that night?
Lindsey: I think that there were 11,000 applications so from the very beginning, and then there were 50 finalists, and then maybe about 10 to 15 of us did the one-minute pitch in front of the whole room so it was a very competitive process. It was also really fun. WeWork is a really fun company. There were drinks, there was food. Mark Ronson DJ'ed afterwards. It's like it was, and it was Tuesday night in DC, like we don't party like that on Tuesdays in DC, so it was really fun. It was really an amazing, life-changing experience.
Kruse: What advice would you give me from that experience? How do I nail a one-minute pitch?
Lindsey: Yeah, so I think you nail a one-minute pitch by being extremely prepared. I mean, there were definitely people who, I think, maybe didn't know that this was part of it? It's really hard to succinctly describe the impact of your company or your organization in one minute unless you've really thought about it. I would also say think about what is most impressive about what you do and demonstrate the impact of your mission and really focus on that. I also think just having a really good opening sentence is important because you capture the audience's attention.
Kruse: Do you remember what your opening sentence was?
Lindsey: I'm trying to think what my opening sentence was. It was something like, "There are millions of Americans who don't have access to technology, and with training and support, they are the next generation of tech startup founders, entrepreneurs, and leaders." It was something like that.