News & Insights

Flipping the Scripts: Village Capital Lets Startups Choose Who Wins Funding

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Top row: Omolara Thomas Uwemedimo (Strong Children Wellness), Jessica Shin (SpeechMED), Susan Perry (SpeechMED), Bottom row: Jimmy Pappadeas (Scripted), Eric Alvarez (Grapefruit Health)

In 2009, Village Capital, the world’s largest organization supporting impact-driven, seed-stage startups, began exploring solutions to a challenge they saw blocking progress toward racial equity in venture capital. They noticed a systemic reliance on “pattern recognition” among most venture capital firms, in which investors—a predominantly White and male population—were more likely to support those that looked like them. 

Their investigation led them to conduct a radical peer-selection experiment that would allow for new power dynamics: a way to give the decision-making power typically given to investors to the entrepreneurs themselves. A group of early-stage, high-growth entrepreneurs would go through a process of evaluating and providing feedback on each other, eventually making a collective decision on who should receive investment, using Village Capital’s comprehensive framework for assessing and identifying venture maturity. The earliest iterations of this experiment produced exciting results for Village Capital, including a portfolio that is 30% Black- or Latinx-led (compared to 4% industry average) and 46% female-led (compared to 9% industry average). 

This approach to flipping the script on longstanding power dynamics drew our attention at Johnson & Johnson Impact Ventures (JJIV), a fund within the Johnson & Johnson Foundation. We launched in 2019, and just a year later began funding health-focused accelerators at Village Capital—actively supporting a total of 32 participating companies since then, 84% of which have been led by founders of color and over 50% by female founders. 

Last year, for our Innovations in Health Equity Accelerator, a three-month program focused on reducing health disparities for people of color in the U.S., 10 startups were chosen, all dedicated to creating solutions around access to healthcare delivery and services; quality of healthcare; and efficiency, effectiveness, and well-being of frontline health workers. These are key focuses of JJIV and are aligned with Our Race to Health Equity, Johnson & Johnson’s $100 million commitment to promote health equity solutions. 

And, in October of 2022, the accelerator cohort then selected four startups based on eight specific investment criteria to win USD$50,000 each in grant funding to strengthen their business platforms. 

At JJIV, we recognize that to truly support purpose-driven entrepreneurs whose social businesses are disruptive or transformational in nature, we must also look for funding mechanisms that are themselves disruptive and transformational in nature. So we were thrilled to celebrate with the peer-selected startups—and excited to share how the accelerator and peer-selection process benefited them! 

We asked them how the experience has shaped their approach to their work this new year:

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Grapefruit Health – Chicago, Illinois
This startup addresses the massive workforce shortage in healthcare by building a network of trained clinical students who can provide basic medical care and counsel to patients remotely, via telehealth, and at lower cost.

Eric Alvarez, CEO and Founder of Grapefruit Health, said:
“Professionally, we learned a great deal about how to approach our revenue models. Our mentors and cohort gave incredible feedback on a weekly basis as we honed in on the model that would work best. Without this program, we would still not have a finalized model that we thought we could scale. I feel much better prepared to lead the business now since we were able to do so much value-add work to our infrastructure. We had a lot of open questions that are now answered and validated by some really smart, experienced people.”

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Scripted – Chicago, Illinois
This startup offers the first online marketplace where patients in need of non-urgent care for common conditions can get connected with an in-person local pharmacy provider.

Jimmy Pappadeas, Product Owner at Scripted, said:
“Having to conduct ongoing peer due diligence forced me to empathize with investors and see through their lens when they ask questions and evaluate opportunities. That aspect of the accelerator helped me gain ground as I shift back and forth from a product/customer/solution focus to business and investability considerations. The experience enabled me to better understand what we might need to prioritize when building and presenting our vision, product and company to investor audiences and important partners. I feel more equipped to lead and make decisions in ways that incorporate their perspectives in looking at business and investment viability.”

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SpeechMED – Miami, Florida
This startup offers an award-winning online platform that reads personal medication information aloud to patients in their language. It is designed and built for immigrant households, the elderly and socioeconomically vulnerable populations to track, understand and monitor their health.

Susan Perry, CEO, and Jessica Shin, CGO of SpeechMED said:
“The accelerator helped to validate our business case and gave us the ability to articulate our mission. We gained a deeper understanding of the business case for health equity and building an impactful business. It equipped us with the knowledge, skills and network to advocate for more language and literacy services for patient care. We believe more strongly than ever that there cannot be health equity if patients don't have equal access to understandable healthcare communication. Our focus will be on the growth and scalability of SpeechMED while continuing to build a team dedicated to a culture of innovation and patient-centered communication to promote equitable healthcare for all of us.”

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Strong Children Wellness – Queens, New York
This startup embeds comprehensive medical care into trusted community organizations to help families receive care that integrates all kinds of health: primary care, mental health and social care to children and families with medical, behavioral and social complexity.

Omolara Thomas Uwemedimo, MD, MPH, CEO of Strong Children Wellness said:
“The accelerator was transformative in a number of ways. As an entrepreneur, it provided me with more knowledge on how to present our business better for catalytic funding, and also a deep dive into how to comprehensively evaluate what areas we needed to work on in order to scale. Personally, it gave me more confidence after hearing feedback about our work from peer entrepreneurs in the community and our advisors. I believe this experience will be quite impactful for this year, because we were able to craft our milestone plan, briefing book and financial model—all of which have been crucial for conversations with funders. These documents have elevated our conversations and opened the door for larger funding opportunities.”