These Women-led Startups from Chicago are Ready for Investment

Over $1.1 Billion dollars in VC money was poured into Illinois companies in 2015, of which $741 million went to 49 early-stage deals. According to the 2015 Global Startup Ecosystem Ranking by Compass.co, close to 30% of every startup launched in Chicago was launched by a female founder. However, it’s unclear how much of the $1.1 Billion was actually invested in women-owned businesses. Nationwide estimates of funding in women-founded companies continue to linger around 5–7%.

Chicago has become the world-wide leader in cultivating and embracing a more balanced entrepreneurial ecosystem. WiSTEM, a program born within 1871 with the financial backing of Google, Motorola Mobility, and the Lefkofsky Family Foundation, helps women-led technology-enabled companies by connecting them to investors, mentors, and an array of technology resources. The strides made by WiSTEM have undoubtedly made a positive impact on the number of women-owned technology businesses that helped Chicago gain these positive headlines.

WiSTEM’s second cohort recently graduated and pitched their businesses to a packed room of supporters and investors. It quickly became clear that the WiSTEM program had identified women that were focused on solving large problems hindering our society.

Here are two companies I’m particularly excited about:

Elu — Made to measure apparel for plus size women

The CDC reports that the average American woman is a size 14. But plus-size fashion options are often only a small fraction of both online and physical retailers. This leaves consumers fleeing to online stores like Gwynnie Bee and ModCloth which cater to women that wear extended sizes.

Plus-size design education isn’t the highest priority for many fashion design schools. This spring a student at the leading fashion design school in New York, Parsons, made waves when she petitioned for more plus-size mannequins. Students are cognizant that the demand and need for a more diverse product offering is there. The lack of design education to produce plus-size clothing is only one part of the problem. Factories in Asia aren’t properly equipped with tools to produce a larger range of sizes.

Industry Details

According to Bloomberg Gadfly, there’s currently a 20.4 Billion opportunity within overall annual women’s plus-size apparel sales. Consumer demand for plus-size clothing saw a 8% YOY growth in 2014 — significantly higher than the steady 1.5% growth in total women’s clothing sales that same year.

Why I’m Excited

Elu’s founder shared that their team is able to retain a 60% gross margin with their current production approach. The team is focusing on using higher-quality materials and provides specs directly to the dressmakers. They’re essentially ditching the middleman which leads to manufacturer mark up. The end result is a longer-lasting (and better-fitting) wardrobe staple piece.

Elu’s platform utilizes a quiz to gather data around body measurement and style/fit preferences. The style recommendation algorithm then makes suggestions to help customers determine their base style. The best part? Customers can then further accessorize or embellish their outfit in Elu’s dynamic design studio. Opportunities for iterative style refinement will emerge as the brand continues to collect data and feedback from their customers.

The market for higher-end custom apparel and accessories via e-commerce has already emerged with the entrance of Shoes of Prey. According to VC investment database CB Insights, the custom shoe company has raised over $23 Million since 2012, with Khosla Ventures, Nordstrom, and Andy Dunn of Bonobos, among others, all having invested. Women are loving the hands-on approach to curating their own shoe designs — getting the exact look and feel they want.

In addition to their core custom dress offerings, additional revenue opportunities for Elu could come in the form of lead-generating influencer partnerships or strategic omni-channel relationships with upscale fashion retailers.

Learn more about Elu and contribute to their Kickstarter campaign.

worldevermore — Improving the immigration process with artificial intelligence

The United States Citizenship and Immigration Service’s (USCIS) website boasts 100 unique forms with filing fees as high as $6,230. The application process for a visa or green card can be daunting, confusing, and downright unclear. This leads to many applicants filling out incorrect forms or not submitting the necessary legal documents. For an agency that runs primarily on paper, immigration application processing horror stories are the norm.

worldevermore utilizes artificial intelligence through a conversational bot to help users identify which immigration forms they need to complete. The platform also boasts accessibility by providing translations of these questions in several languages (Spanish and Chinese to start) alongside visual guides. After identifying and completing the proper forms, users are able to connect with a specialist to confirm that they are good to submit their application.

The USCIS has spent over 1 Billion dollars and over 12 years trying to digitize the immigration application and record-keeping process. However, the agency has only been able to successfully launch one form online. Analysts estimate it will take another 4–5 years to execute the project with a total project cost of 3.5 Billion dollars — which is 3 Billion dollars over the initial estimate. The current immigration application process is nearly all paper-based and is highly inefficient. In addition to that, the USCIS only provides documents in English with no translated versions available.

Industry Details

The USCIS receives and processes around 6 million applications per year. A portion of the applications are processed with the help of lawyers (expensive), translators (expensive and potentially error-prone), and community centers (time intensive due to high demand).

Why I’m Excited

worldevermore has the ability to disrupt the immigration application process by providing an easy-to-use platform that harnesses natural language processing to automate a cumbersome process. It can help cut down on the time government employees are manually reviewing documents — some that don’t even meet the specified criteria.

In addition to monetizing access to their base platform, revenue opportunities could come in the form of on-demand legal assistance and a legal document translation service.

Learn more about worldevermore and sign up for their launch updates.

WiSTEM is currently accepting applications for their Fall 2016 cohort. The program is set to take place at Chicago’s 1871 technology hub from September 2016 — January 2017. The Fall 2016 cohort will also have an opportunity to secure $25,000 in capital via a partnership with Village Capital Communities. Applications for WiSTEM will be accepted until tonight (July 21, 2016) at 5:00pm CT. Learn more about WiSTEM and apply today!

Special thanks to the team at 1871, the team at WiSTEM and their volunteers / mentors, Howard Tullman, Tom Alexander, Nicole Yeary, and Jessica Williams for investing their time and efforts into making Chicago the leading city for women in entrepreneurship.