The KPI Club: How Female Founders Thrive at UVA Darden

By Gosia Glinska


Elizabeth Blankenship (Class of 2022) chose the University of Virginia Darden School of Business for its vibrant entrepreneurial ecosystem, including many avenues of support available to student founders.

“When I was applying to Darden,” said Blankenship, “I was very straightforward: ‘I want to come here specifically because I have a business idea. I know I’ll be able to do it, but I’m missing key skills and mentorship and community.’”

Blankenship said her decision to pursue the Darden MBA has paid off beyond her expectations. Her entrepreneurship-oriented education began months before she officially started classes in January 2021. She was still in New York in her job in the fashion industry when Professor Damon DeVito, who teaches the popular “Venture Velocity” course at Darden, started coaching her. “Damon was pushing me to accelerate on my idea,” said Blankenship. “I was also immediately plugged into the Entrepreneurship and Venture Capital Club, and took part in the pitch competition they had in September.”

The Darden Pitch Competition: Women Supporting Women

At the pitch competition, Blankenship presented her sustainable luxury fashion brand, Coton, committed to creating unique, on-demand clothes, while reducing the fashion industry’s significant carbon footprint.

She was named a finalist, along with Megan Nash (Class of 2022), who pitched Rayna, a pubic hair trimmer designed for a woman’s body; Jing Xu (Class of 2022), whose beverage startup Cobouchy makes coffee kombucha; Cecilia Rios Murrieta (Class of 2022), a founder of non-alcoholic spirits company Joie de Sans; and Megan McGee (Class of 2021), who pitched a group dining venture.

To Blankenship, the most remarkable thing was not that all finalists were women. The surprise to her was that they all became one another’s biggest cheerleaders. “We met that night, and we became fast friends,” recalled Blankenship. “We were direct competitors, but we were on each other’s team. We wanted to be successful collectively, rather than pitted against each other. That’s something that has never happened to me before.”

The Startup Academy: Calling All Founders

Unlike Blankenship, Nash did not come to Darden with a laser-sharp focus on advancing her venture. “I assumed,” said Nash, “that I would pursue some idea but in Second Year, because I’d heard so much about Darden’s rigorous core curriculum, and there were so many other things I wanted to dive into my First Year.”

What changed her mind was the Startup Academy, an entrepreneurship immersion program for all graduate students across the University of Virginia, offered by Darden’s Batten Institute prior to the start of classes each fall.

That’s where Nash met DeVito. “Damon delivered a galvanizing address to all aspiring entrepreneurs,” said Nash. “It was so powerful; I’ll never forget it. He said, ‘So many students come through and do not take the time to work on their venture, thinking they’re going to do it in the future. But that day never comes, and it’s tragic. You owe it to yourselves to work on it now.’”

DeVito’s speech had an immediate effect: Nash started working on the Rayna Trimmer that she and her friend Katie Burke dreamed up years ago. Soon after, Rayna placed first in the Darden Pitch Competition, and later won the first and second stages of the UVA Entrepreneurship Cup (E-Cup) competition.

For Nash, the all-women shortlist in the pitch competition created a new call to action. “Female entrepreneurs,” said Nash, “are told over and over that they’re not going to receive VC funding, and that their ventures will never see the light of day. So when I saw that all the finalists were women and four were First Years, I thought that we should find some way to team up to help each other overcome obstacles.”

The KPI Club: Forming a Team to Help Advance Each Other’s Ventures

Faced with a demanding schedule, Nash wasn’t about to leave anything to chance. “With Damon’s voice in my head,” said Nash, “I thought that the five of us in the competition would want to hold each other accountable and keep the momentum up. So I proposed that we meet twice a month to update each other on our progress and define our respective KPIs (key performance indicators) guiding the next two weeks of our work.”

And so, the KPI Club launched in September 2020. The idea of having key performance indicators was planted by DeVito, who encourages student founders to identify a specific problem to overcome or goal to reach to move their ventures forward, then drill down to identify the steps to get there. “Before I focused on KPIs,” said Nash, “I’d feel like I was working hard, because I spent a lot of time on the venture. But I was just doing undirected research; I wasn’t moving any specific part of the business forward in a measurable way.”

One of Nash’s early KPIs was to get initial feedback from five women so that she could design a user-feedback spreadsheet. As Nash recalled, “I hired an engineer studying at UVA to develop several prototypes of the trimmer handle, then solicited feedback on them from potential customers. This was a process efficiency before spending the money on developing an expensive 3D-printed model of the trimmer.”

Having a few specific goals to focus on in a short timeframe was a game changer for Coco Woeltz (Class of 2021), whose venture Hummingbyrd offers a sports bra with a front-zipper horizontal pocket that fits a smartphone and other essentials. “Launching a company is a balancing act,” said Woeltz. “When you think too far ahead, it’s easy to get overwhelmed by all the things you need to do or don’t know how to do. Damon’s advice of just looking at the two weeks ahead and asking yourself, ‘What are the one or two key things that I need to get done that will take me to the next level?’ has been pivotal to my progress and efficiency.”

DeVito joins the club’s virtual meetings as an observer and occasionally chimes in with tough questions. He also serves as a mentor.

Emotional Support: Helping Fellow Founders Cope

Xu credits the KPI Club’s ethos of mutual support with helping her when she hit a rough patch. “This quarter,” she said, “I’ve been going through some tough times with Cobouchy. I felt unmotivated dealing with regulatory stuff, but it’s something I just I have to do to move forward.” As Xu explained, kombucha is a fermented beverage that contains alcohol. Those seeking to sell it must comply with strict federal, state and local requirements. But getting the necessary approvals proved to be more difficult, expensive and time consuming than Xu had expected.

Being able to share her challenges with the club has been therapeutic. As Xu put it, “The KPI Club is good about being positive and uplifting and reminding you to look back and see all the things that you’ve accomplished and how far you’ve come.”

Woeltz, too, prizes the club’s tight communal sense and the spirit of support. Not long ago, she wasn’t making progress on her KPIs, felt stuck and almost threw in the towel. With the help of her founder-friends and DeVito’s guidance, Woeltz has iterated her prototype and has sold 53 bras to date. Her venture made it to the finals of the Launch stage of the UVA E-Cup, becoming eligible for a $20,000 prize.

Blankenship, who won the Discovery stage of the UVA E-Cup, sees the KPI Club as instrumental to her venture’s progress. “The purpose of our meetings is accountability,” said Blankenship, “because having those strong competing priorities is difficult. You know you have to prepare your cases for class, but you also know that if don’t do the next step on your venture, nobody else will. The club kept me on track, but it also accelerated me more than I’d expected.

DeVito couldn’t be prouder. “Our female founders are crushing it,” he said, “and I’d put them against their peers at any B-school in the world right now. I’m not sure if they know how cool they are.”

Darden Female Founders’ Startup Snapshot

Cobouchy produces coffee kombucha beverages, providing a much-needed boost of energy to get you through the day.
Founder: Jing Xu (Class of 2022)
Website: www.cobouchy.com
Instagram: @cobouchy

Coton is a fully sustainable luxury fashion brand focused on utilizing existing textiles. It connects cause-conscious consumers with stylish, zero-waste clothing.
Founders: Elizabeth Blankenship (Class of 2022), Alyssa Blankenship
Website: www.thecoton.com
Instagram: @cotonclothiers

Hummingbyrd offers sports bras designed for limitless activity, giving women athletes better, more functional sports bras. Through its unique design, women can stash their phones and other essentials in a comfortable, accessible pocket so they can feel safer on runs and enjoy activity hands free.
Founder: Colby “Coco” Woeltz (Class of 2021)
Website: www.runwithhumm.com
Instagram: @runwithhumm

The Rayna Trimmer is an electric trimmer for hair down there, made for women, by women. Developed specifically for women’s pubic hair, the Rayna Trimmer has an ergonomic design for hard to reach areas and safe nick-free blades that won’t cause irritations or ingrowns.
Founders: Megan Nash (Class of 2022), Katie Burke, Max Berg
Website: www.shoprayna.com
Instagram: @rayna.trimmer

Joie de Sans is an alcohol-free cocktail company that is inclusive, empowering and sophisticated.
Founder: Cecilia Rios Murrieta (Class of 2022)
Website: www.joiedesans.com
Instagram: @joiedesans

About the University of Virginia Darden School of Business

The University of Virginia Darden School of Business delivers the world’s best business education experience to prepare entrepreneurial, global and responsible leaders through its MBA, Ph.D., MSBA and Executive Education programs. Darden’s top-ranked faculty is renowned for teaching excellence and advances practical business knowledge through research. Darden was established in 1955 at the University of Virginia, a top public university founded by Thomas Jefferson in 1819 in Charlottesville, Virginia.

 

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