Siblings Gina and Jenae Heitkamp, winners of the 2014 Business Plan Competition at UC Irvine’s Paul Merage School of Business, 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 6 to 10 years old. 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 half-dozen 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 Heitkamp. “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 30-something sisters to start the company. Gina, with an MBA from The Paul Merage School of Business and several years with social networking startups, had noticed the lack of women at industry events. Jenae, a child therapist for 15 years and the mother of a young daughter, had often wished that the girls she worked with had more role models and would dream bigger when it came to choosing a career.
Each of the diverse characters in the iBesties story has a middle school persona and a corresponding mogul role in the fledgling enterprise. 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 team’s blogger is a book lover, the publicity mastermind is a prankster tomboy, and the graphic designer is an artsy diva.
David Ochi, executive director of UCI’s Blackstone Launchpad, served as a judge for the business plan competition. He says it was a tough choice. Typically, the entries are for high-tech biomedical or engineering companies; iBesties is decidedly low-tech. But it stood out for several reasons.
“The iBesties team had a well-developed concept, not just an idea,” Ochi says. “They had a product – a book and a doll – with a storyline 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 that 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 in 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,” Jenae Heitkamp says.
In October, they moved into TechPortal, a business incubator in the Calit2 building at UCI. And with help from Women in Toys, a professional networking group for women in the toy industry, the sisters attended the Fall Toy Preview in Dallas.
Additionally, they were finalists in the first Blackstone LaunchPad Demo Day in New York City – one of only 20 teams across the country selected to compete. Next up is the five-day Toy Fair 2015 in New York City starting Feb. 13.
With an interactive website, two books, a three-dimensional doll prototype and a tight elevator pitch, the Heitkamps are talking to potential investors and buyers. They’re also seeking a doll fashion designer and have been drafting designs for the iBesties toy office.
The women hope to beat the statistics. According to Bloomberg, eight out of 10 entrepreneurs who start businesses fail within the first 18 months.
“IBesties has all the characteristics for success,” says Ochi, a veteran early-stage company executive with more than 20 years of entrepreneurial and fundraising experience. “With hard work and a little bit of luck, they will do well, and we will all have a lot to be proud of.”
In launching a company aimed at inspiring young girls with new kinds of role models, Gina and Jenae Heitkamp have themselves become examples of smart, savvy, ambitious women pursuing their dreams.
Watch out for more falling glass.