On a grey and blustery Boston evening, the lights are bright and the minds are whirling inside Harvard’s i-Lab. Tucked away in a glass-and-white-walled conference room, four second-year MBAs are deep in conversation, eyes glued to a flat-screen TV displaying a PowerPoint pitch deck. Should they tweak the wording, drop a slide, rearrange the graphics?
The pressure is on. The very next day, April 29, they’ll be presenting their business idea in the finals of Harvard Business School’s annual New Venture Competition, the school’s capstone entrepreneurial event where students go head-to-head with business pitches for $150,000 in cash and in-kind prizes. The stakes are high. Unlike some of the other 135 teams that competed this year, this particular group of Harvard MBAs already has a bona fide business. The $50,000 first prize would propel their startup forward. They’ve only spent $8,000 so far. All they need to do is sell the judges on their idea, proving that it’s the most viable.
But they’ve got a major hurdle. Will the judges take them seriously? After all, when you’re offering personal profiles for arranged marriages in India, you have some explaining to do – and they only have 15 minutes.
The four students are among thousands of MBAs entering a growing number of business plan competitions around the world. Entrepreneurship is hot, and MBAs are forming and joining teams to out-pitch each other everywhere from Texas to Thailand. In the process, they’re gaining valuable feedback, exposure, and sometimes thousands of dollars in prize money.
The four hatched the idea in true startup fashion – a late-night brainstorming session over takeout (Pad Thai in this case). During the 2013 Winter Term, they enrolled in HBS’s required FEILD 3 course. Here, they’d been assigned to create a business from scratch. The team seemed like an unlikely fit – better suited for a diversity-extolling college marketing magazine than startup success. Yu Kakitsubo, 28, a Japanese finance professional studied math in undergrad, a major he shared with the sole American in the group – Allyson Pritchett, 29. The similarities ended there. Pritchett, a former McKinsey consultant had started her own music label and co-founded an online apparel and accessories platform. Slovakian Peter Luptak, 28, also cut his teeth in consulting with McKinsey and came to HBS with the intention of starting a business by graduation – something he’d already ticked off with a cyber security service. Pratik Agarwal, 26, an electrical engineer from India, had two startups under his belt and an internship with Airbnb. Their original FIELD 3 team also included students from Kenya and Haiti. Despite professional and geographical differences, all of them shared a vision: to create something that would change the world.
Out of ideas, and Pad Thai, the late-night conversation shifted to a recurring topic: Agarwal’s wife search.
As the only Indian in the group, his arranged marriage had attracted the interest of his co-founders – and their entire section. “So have you found a wife yet?” teased Pritchett. On the defensive, Agarwal pulled up a schlocky personal profile, or biodata, his father had assembled. These documents are forwarded, mostly via email, among Indian families in the process of arranging a match. Once an Indian reaches marriage age they, and their friends and family, can expect an inbox-clogging tsunami of biodata emails. It’s cyber chaos. Choice candidates get lost in the flood. Plus, a poorly designed profile can jeopardize a candidate’s chances of finding his or her lifelong partner.
The team agreed that Agarwal’s profile put him at a disadvantage. He then showed them one he’d crafted for himself: a slick Photoshoped portfolio. “Nice, now you’ve got a competitive edge,” Pritchett said. An idea began to form.
Agarwal opened other biodatas – poorly formatted Microsoft Word documents and worse. The team discovered that more than 70% of families said their impression of a candidate changed on the basis of his or her biodata. There was clearly a need for a user-friendly biodata design tool, but how big was the market?
A quick Google search revealed that roughly 90% of Indians still practice arranged marriage. With more than 10 million weddings occurring every year, India’s wedding industry is estimated to be worth over $25 billion and growing at 30% annually, according to the BBC.