Venture With Virtue
By Jesy Odio '15
Published Jan 1, 2015 8:00 AM
These recent grads won a $400,000 validation of their idea.
Ann Wang ’13 And Jessica Willison ’13 were preparing for a huge seasonal photo shoot when they got some very good news. Their start-up, Enrou, was a finalist — out of more than 100 contenders — to win $400,000 in the first Forbes “Pressure Cooker” pitch competition at the Under 30 Summit.
Enrou, an online marketplace, connects vendors from developing communities with consumers all over the world. The team behind it is 90 percent UCLA students and recent grads.
Before long, Wang and Willison were catching a red-eye flight to Philadelphia to make their pitch to some of the nation’s most influential entrepreneurs.The Enrou team was prepared. They had spent the summer with Startup UCLA’s accelerator program, in which students talk with entrepreneurs and investors on what it’s like to launch a business in L.A.’s digital environment.
As Wang stepped into the spotlight, she did not feel nervous. “On behalf of the team and our hard work, I felt so proud standing on that stage,” she says.
Wang’s confidence impressed the Summit’s judges, which included AOL co-founder Steve Case, Atom Factory founder and CEO Troy Carter, and Forbes Media CEO Mike Perlis. When the results of the competition came in, the winner was Enrou.
This Bruin business began with a trip to San Diego, when Wang first told Willison about her idea. Willison was immediately onboard. The first thing to tackle? The name. “Enrou stands for ‘en route to a better world,’” says Wang. The next step was to spread the word. Wang even started telling strangers at Starbucks about the start-up.
“Enrou is founded on the desire to empower people around the world through the power of trade,” Willison says. It provides opportunity to those who need it most, but also to “our customers, who make a positive impact in the lives and communities of the makers of the products, whether it’s handroasted coffee from Rwanda, unique jewelry from Laos or one-of- a-kind home goods from India.”
Wang and Willison were UCLA seniors when they landed their first interview with what would become one of their first clients, Hiptipico, a brand that sells the work of Guatemalan artisans.
“Between classes, we met at the library and skyped with our first vendor,” says Wang.
Wang had learned about sustainability and impact in international development studies. Consumer culture, she says, has evolved to build a more meaningful connection between buyers and the global market than ever before. Through Enrou, she hopes to help drive the movement that is encouraging more mindful living by consumers.
But being entrepreneurs right after college is not easy. “It’s tougher when you don’t have the resources or the people,” says Wang. She and Willison started their venture with just $5,000. With the Forbes prize, they plan to relaunch and redesign. They want to reach out to a massive audience, find an office and hire a full team.
“We’re not here to be big buyers or regulators of the market,” Wang says. “We stand behind an idea that we believe will reduce global poverty and turn the world into a more sustainable marketplace.”