NU student entrepreneurs compete for opportunity and cash

Many big companies spend big bucks trying to come up with catchy names. You hire consultants. analyze data. Concentrate on focus groups.

But Charlotte Oxnam has done something less expensive.

She spoke to her mother.

Oxnam’s startup Cue the Curves is one of 25 semifinalists in Northwestern University’s annual Venture Cat competition, where student entrepreneurs try to convince experts their business idea could be the next big thing.

More than $325,000 in prize money will be awarded, all of which help the entries grow into existence. First prize is $150,000, with smaller amounts up the winners’ ladder.

Cue the Curves is an online platform to connect plus size women with attractive and stylish clothing.

Oxnam, a third-year student from Maryland, says her mother came up with the name.

They played around with ideas, Oxnam explains, as mom said, “Cue the curves.”

“We were both silent for a second,” says Oxnam. “And that was it!”

She adds, “I like to call Cue the Curves a love letter to my younger self.”

“I spent years,” explains Oxnam, “struggling with my body image” and with clothes that all looked the same and not very attractive.

“At least 95% of plus size clothing doesn’t have a lot of physical presence,” says Oxnam.

Hence Cue the Curves, which Oxnam describes as “a style-driven approach that allows women to find clothes that suit them”.

The data generated also helps manufacturers and retailers “look at overall trends and help them come up with better clothing designs.” Data collection is a way to monetize the website. Another reason is commissions from “affiliates” who list brands on the site and make sales, even though the listing itself is free.

Cue the Curves is part of the Consumer Products and Services category, one of five areas of Venture Cat (the others are Business Products and Services, Energy and Sustainability, Life Sciences and Medical Innovation, and Social Impact).

As with Cue the Curves, each entry is from a Northwest student or group of students, whether undergraduate or graduate. And every market participant tries to find or even create demand for their product or service. So pure entrepreneurship.

According to Mike Raab, interim director of The Garage, one of the organizations that runs Venture Cat, the term “escape velocity” applies here. “Escape Velocity” is the speed required to launch not a rocket but an operation in this case.

Unlike Cue the Curves, The Garage wasn’t named by someone’s mother. Rather, according to Raab, the term refers to “the location for a typical tech startup”, such as YouTube. You know, like someone’s real garage.

This garage is an on-campus coworking space that houses several entrepreneurship programs.

Other organizations involved have more traditional names, such as the Kellogg School of Management, the Farley Center for Innovation, and the Donald Pritzker Entrepreneurship Law Center.

Financial sponsors are the Levy Institute, Lanny and Sharon Martin and Exelon.

Venture Cat started in 2014 and many of the winners have created successful companies.

But “even non-winners walk away with something that helps them prepare” for launching a startup, says Raab. For example, competitors are matched with graphic design firms and also with “pitch coaches” (not “pitch coaches.” That’s baseball) who help student entrepreneurs improve their presentations.

Each contestant only has seven minutes before the judges, so those pitches have to be right over the plate (OK, sorry again for the baseball reference).

And while there’s a lot of prize money at stake, along with “escape speed” to collect other funds, Raab says cash isn’t really the motivating factor.

“What I find really inspiring,” he notes, is that most attendees “are driven by a mission…a problem they’re trying to solve.”

Some of these suggested solutions, based on the entries, tackle everything from medical imaging to wildfire detection to helping math teachers better review student work and provide feedback.

For the past two years, Venture Cat has been kept away due to COVID-19. But this year’s session is personal again, which Raab says means “more energy and excitement”.

Venture Cat winners will be announced Wednesday at 6:00 p.m. on the Kellogg Global Hub at the public pitch showcase.

Cue the competitors.

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