2020 Most Disruptive MBA Startups: Women Offshore Foundation, Rice University (Jones)

Women Offshore Foundation

MBA Program: Rice University, Jones Graduate School of Business

Industry: Maritime / Offshore Energy

Founding Student Name(s): Ally Cedeno

Brief Description of Solution: The Women Offshore Foundation, also known as Women Offshore​, is an online organization and resource center supporting a diverse workforce on the water. As a 501(c)(3), non-profit private foundation, our mission is to shine a light on women in operations, provide resources to foster long-term careers, and share the latest efforts on gender diversity and inclusion in the offshore and maritime industries.

Funding Dollars: Personal Savings (Initially ~$5000) and corporate sponsorship (Initially $10,000)

What led you to launch this venture?

For 10 years, I worked at sea, spending the majority of that time on ultra-deepwater drillships. Either I was the only woman or one of just a few on the ships I worked on. In 2015, I was assigned to work on a drillship in the Gulf of Mexico. This was the first time where I worked alongside several women in the offshore oil and gas industry. I became especially close with a few of the other officers on board, and we opened up to each other about some of our experiences working offshore. Seeing how similar our challenges and successes had been, I felt very bonded to them. Looking back, we mentored each other, probably without realizing it. I found the environment overall to be inclusive, and I thrived. After two years of working on board, I was promoted and then given the opportunity to work on a brand new drillship in South Korea.

In South Korea, I missed that camaraderie and remained close with my previous crew. I thought that the environment on my previous vessel was how the industry should be, and that maybe I could recreate that environment online. Each day after a 12-hour shift in the shipyard, I could not wait to get back to my apartment to work on the website I was building, WomenOffshore.org. I would stay up until I couldn’t keep my eyes open.

I felt an internal shift when I put together the plan for the site, which I would grow into a nonprofit organization. I became so proud of the women I was profiling to be role models, my own career, and the opportunities to work on the water. WomenOffshore.org went live on July 25th, 2017. I was in South Korea and it was very late at night, so with the website public, I thanked the team of women and men that had helped me launch it and went to bed. At that point, I knew this would be a gift for anyone who happened upon it and could use the resources to propel their own careers.

What has been your biggest accomplishment so far with this venture? My biggest accomplishment so far with Women Offshore is operating a mentoring program that has grown from just a few mentors and mentees to 150 participants. This year, we expanded the capacity to 500 spots. I started the mentoring program in 2018 as a means to connect women who work on the water, especially in fleets where they don’t have access to female mentors.

The program is open to women anywhere in the world who have experience working on the water or are pursuing a job at sea and students are especially welcome. The platform is designed for use on mobile devices and pairings are made based on the career aspirations of the mentee. Additional functions in the program include a communication loop with task planning that provides an organizational structure to tackle challenges and achieve career goals. We also offer a resource hub with mentoring best practices and support while away at sea, including resources in harassment management and sexual assault prevention.

How has your MBA program helped you further this startup venture? I transformed my vision for Women Offshore in my MBA program. In every class I took, even my core classes, I was able to apply what I was learning to growing the organization. Classes in marketing, pricing, and accounting were especially helpful. During my second year, I designed my entire schedule to support Women Offshore. Highlights included nonprofit accounting class, pricing strategy, and entrepreneurship lab (e-lab). Assignments helped me see gaps in my business plan that needed to be finessed or bridged.

What founder or entrepreneur inspired you to start your own entrepreneurial journey? How did he or she prove motivational to you? Before starting the MBA, I read Shoe Dog by Phil Knight, the founder of Nike. I loved learning about the early days of starting Nike. His story gave me confidence that I might not have all the answers now, but if I keep trying, I can make my entrepreneurial dreams come true.

One story that stuck with me was how the swoosh was designed, because it was a very similar story to how I designed the Women Offshore logo. I needed a logo and quickly took a W and put an O around it. I chose the W because it almost reminded me of a pulse line, signifying that women exist offshore (we have a pulse). At first, I wasn’t sure if I liked the logo and thought it could work for a while. It has become recognizable in my industry and the community seems to cherish it.

Which MBA class has been most valuable in building your startup and what was the biggest lesson you gained from it? The most valuable class in building my startup was Pricing Strategy with Utpal Dholakia. This was probably my hardest elective during my second year. Case studies were done individually, and I would spend all weekend working on a single case study. I remember several lightbulb moments in his class that could be better described as “WOW moments” because they really stuck with me. Later on, when it came time to set pricing for items at Women Offshore and build out our online shop, I relied on the foundation I built in that class.

What professor made a significant contribution to your plans and why?  To answer this question, I would like to acknowledge the Rice Business Events Department. Whitney and Owen had a huge impact on preparing for our 2nd and 3rd annual conference. They are always eager to assist and offer advice from their experiences in event planning, and helped me tackle some of the more difficult logistics challenges. I appreciate how they volunteered their time and knowledge because they enjoyed supporting my startup’s mission.

How did the pandemic impact your startup plans? The pandemic impacted my startup significantly. Our plan this year was to host a conference for ~400 people. This was going to be our main source of revenue. Unfortunately, we had to postpone the conference and hold it virtually. While it was upsetting at first, we knew our hard work in planning the conference can be used in the future and focused in the meantime on other potential cash flows, such as monetizing our podcast and website.

What is your long-term goal with your startup? My long-term goal for Women Offshore is for it to be a one stop shop for women who work or are pursuing a job on the water in the maritime and offshore energy industry. I want them to feel fully supported in their career goals, feeling confident that they have the resources through Women Offshore to pursue their dreams. In turn, I want to see the gender gap reduced on the water. It is believed that the maritime industry is approximately 98% male. Moving the needle, even slightly, would be a huge accomplishment.


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