By Lori Brandt
Irvine, November 25, 2014 —
Siblings Gina and Jenae Heitkamp, winners of the 2014 Merage Business Plan Competition, are breaking glass ceilings: first all-female team to win, first sister team to make the finals and first toy idea to take the 11-year-old contest.
Their company, iBesties, is a line of books, dolls and online entertainment that aims to inspire entrepreneurship and technology learning in girls, ages 6 to 10. The multimedia brand tells the story of six middle-school girls who end up in the fast-paced world of Internet startups after their blog becomes an accidental overnight success. The six best friends, or besties, learn how to juggle middle school friendships, boys, homework and their own social networking site ? all while keeping it a secret from their parents. They are “middle schoolers by day… moguls by night.”
“There are a lot of programs out there encouraging girls to get interested in entrepreneurship, science and technology, but most start later, in high school,” says Gina. “Our goal with iBesties is to start younger and through aspirational play, show girls some of the many opportunities that exist.”
It was their own experiences that motivated the two women to start the company. Gina, with an MBA from the UC Irvine Paul Merage School of Business and several years of working on social networking startup companies, noticed the lack of women at industry events. Jenae, who has spent 15 years as a child therapist, often wished that her young female patients had more role models and would dream bigger when it came to choosing a career.
Each of the six characters in the iBesties story has a middle school persona and a corresponding mogul role in the startup business. The smart techie serves as the group’s computer whiz, the social butterfly becomes the social media guru, and the head cheerleader contributes her savvy business sense. The group’s blogger is a book lover-dreamer, the publicity mastermind is a prankster-tomboy, and the graphic designer is an artsy diva.
David Ochi, a veteran early-stage company executive with 20 years of entrepreneurial and fundraising experience, served as a judge for the business plan competition. He said it was a tough choice. Typically, the entries are high-tech companies, biomedical- or engineering-related. IBesties is decidedly low tech. But it stood out for several reasons.
“The iBesties team had a well-developed concept, not just an idea,” says Ochi. “They had a product – a book and a doll – with story line and characters. They’d done their research and thought through the details. Plus, they delivered a solid presentation with a feel-good message. iBesties gives girls a different role model than Barbie. Their point is, you can be a high achiever and entrepreneur and still be cool. It’s a nice cultural shift to address the needs of young girls.”
With the $15,000 prize money, the Heitkamps both quit their jobs to focus full time on building their company. Gina heads up business operations and Jenae directs product development.
“When we saw that other people, grown men, could get behind our idea, we realized that this could be more than just our hobby,” says Jenae.
This fall, they are moving into TechPortal, Calit2’s business incubator; and with help from Women in Toys, a professional networking group for women in the toy industry, they’ve met with potential buyers at the pre toy fair in Dallas. The sisters are looking for a doll fashion designer and have been drafting designs for the ibesties toy office.
With a website, two books, a rough 3-D doll prototype and a tight elevator pitch, the sisters are talking to potential investors and buyers. They hope to beat the statistics. According to Bloomberg, 8 out of 10 entrepreneurs who start businesses fail within the first 18 months.
“iBesties has all the characteristics for success,” says Ochi, executive director of the UCI ANTrepreneur Center. “With hard work and a little bit of luck, they will do well, and we will have a lot to be proud of.”
Next up for the sisters is the Blackstone Launchpad Demo Day Competition in New York. One of 20 teams selected out of 75, iBesties will vie for the $50,000 prize.
In starting a company aimed at inspiring young girls with role models, Gina and Jenae have themselves become examples of smart, savvy, ambitious women, pursuing their dreams.
Watch out for more falling glass.