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Signature Event: Draper Competition Turns 10



Published March 18, 2022

Melissa Parker Draper ’77 can still recall the finals of the competition she co-founded at Smith a decade ago, when a handful of students gathered in a hallway of Alumnae House to pitch their business plans to a panel of judges.

Even then, Draper says, there was a special energy about the event. “Everyone was just so delighted to be there,” she recalls. “We had such great people serving as judges and mentors. We didn’t realize we were establishing precedents for how this would keep going in the future.”

Since it began in 2013, the Draper Competition for Collegiate Women Entrepreneurs has become a signature enterprise event, drawing more than 800 participants, launching some 75 business ventures, and awarding $1.3 million in cash and Draper University scholarships.

Founded by Draper and her husband, Tim—a leader in the global venture capital field—Smith’s competition is now the #7 collegiate entrepreneurship contest in the country—and the only one hosted by a liberal arts institution highlighting women entrepreneurs.

This year’s 10th anniversary competition, sponsored by Smith’s Jill Ker Conway Innovation and Entrepreneurship Center, will be held virtually from April 4 to April 8. Some 50 college teams, including four from Smith, will present ideas for products, services, web/mobile apps and social impact ventures.

We asked Melissa Draper to reflect on the past decade of the Draper Competition. Here’s what she had to say:

Can you describe the “aha” moment, when you and your husband decided to create the Draper Competition?

“It was really me, reflecting on my experiences at Smith. I thought there was a great opportunity—given that Tim was in venture capital—to offer a program to students who wanted to explore outside of their majors. So, you might be a pre-med major but you have this great idea for a venture. We wanted to provide an experience that would help students with their resumes and their applications for real-world jobs. And Tim loved the idea of giving scholarships to his entrepreneurship program at Draper University.”

How has the competition changed since that first year?

“Initially it was Smith-centric. And then every year after that, it got so much bigger. We started in Alumnae House and then it just kept growing. Finally, we thought, why don’t we open this up to female [college] entrepreneurs wherever they are—and people started seeking it out.”

What difference has it made having Smith as the host institution for the competition?

“From the start, Smith has been very good at understanding how the competition needed support and leadership, and how it could blend with the Conway Center, the Wurtele Center and other resources at the college. We also now have an engineering program on campus—that’s another layer for the business competition. Smith stands for so many things that are wonderful in the empowerment field. And the college has supported this program in such a holistic way. There were a lot of wonderful people who automatically said, ‘yes’ to the idea—from presidents to people on the board.”

What has changed for women entrepreneurs in the 10 years since the Draper contest was founded?

“I think there is now a bigger appreciation and understanding of women entrepreneurs. If you were to ask a person on the street to name a female founder of a company 10 years ago, they probably couldn’t do it. One of the statistics I heard a lot after graduating is that there were more Smith women on corporate boards than from any other college. Our former president Jill Ker Conway was the first female board member of Nike. I really think the whole entrepreneurship area has grown for women, and there’s so much more recognition. I’m now the mother of a venture capitalist who invests in women!”

What’s your favorite part of the competition?

“I always like the final day, when you get to see the individual routes the participants have taken. These are individual journeys, from the start of the idea until they’re there at the judges’ table. I just love meeting the participants. There’s a real difference when you talk to the ones who are living and breathing their enterprise ideas. There’s a different level of enthusiasm. You can hear it and feel it, and it’s so exciting.”

Melissa Draper '77 and her husband, Tim, founded the Draper Competition 10 years ago to help level the playing field for women entrepreneurs. Photograph by Jon Crispin