PITCH finalists posing on stage together

ICUBE’s Pitch with a Twist Celebrates Innovation and Entrepreneurship, Honours International Women's Day

Sarah Ogbiti

If you walked into the Innovation Complex Rotunda on the evening of March 6th, you’d have known in a matter of moments that you’d entered a big, bright, beautiful celebration of women supporting women in their goals, ambitions and accomplishments. Intentionally held during International Women's Month, ICUBE’s Pitch with a Twist is an annual event for woman-identifying innovators and entrepreneurs to pitch their businesses for cash prizes and in-kind support. Adjudicated by a panel of woman-identifying judges, finalists in two categories - early stage and later stage, were invited to share their creative ideas, business plans, research, and progress to compete for a total of $10,000 in prizes. Adorned with flowers and fuchsia, the vibrant setting welcomed 80 guests from U of T and the greater community, and made way for a fun night of networking, learning, and inspiration.  

The evening kicked off with a buzzing networking reception, during which guests had the opportunity to meet fellow entrepreneurs and rub shoulders with leaders across various industries who came to support. Donna Heslin of IDEA Mississauga was in attendance and said that “[the event] once again engaged and inspired everyone in attendance by highlighting the outstanding women founders that U of T entrepreneurship and ICUBE are supporting and mentoring.” Heslin added that “as always, we are proud to partner with the collaborative team at UTM creating inclusive supports for entrepreneurs and providing them opportunities for growth at every stage.”  

As the competitors took the stage, guests enjoyed a custom-curated dinner featuring local and sustainably-sourced menu items and a sampler dessert bar. The timed presentation format made for a high energy evening as the women delivered their pitches Dragon’s Den-style. The winner of the early stage category was Xatoms - founded by Diana Virgovicov, who at the age of 17 discovered a new molecule that led to the development of a water treatment process that uses quantum chemistry and AI to provide clean water around the world. “Each day, women and girls around the world spend 200 million hours searching for and gathering clean water” said Shirley Zhong, who presented for Xatoms. “Our mission is to create a world where safe, clean, and sustainable water sources are accessible to everyone.”   

Second place went to Equity Pulse by Katrina Shrum, whose equity management software and workplace surveys aim to transform the narrative of pay equity and close the gender pay gap. Shrum’s pitch struck the audience with its stats, pointing out that on average, women earn 11% less than men, and that banks and financial institutions have the largest pay gap. In the later stage category, first place went to Toothpods, an on-the-go dental hygiene chewable product created by UCorps, founded by UofT alumna Vishar Yaghoubian.  Toothpods are an “anytime, anywhere” oral care solution “for when a toothbrush isn’t in reach”.  Second place in this category went to Ankita Sharma’s Philer, a real estate law software product aimed at streamlining the administrative work in the homebuying process. Xatoms and Toothpods shone as fan favourites and took home the peoples’ choice awards in their respective categories. 

Catherine Addai
Keynote speaker Catherine Addai

As the pitches wrapped up, the ever-inspiring Catherine Addai made her entrance and captivated with her keynote speech. The Ghanaian-Canadian clothing designer and owner/founder of Kaela Kay told the story of her journey to success and shared words of wisdom with the audience. Addai started her business out of her basement in 2013 with “nothing but a big, audacious dream to become the best fashion designer in the world.” “I had no experience, just hustle, heart, and tenacity” she said. The mom of three eventually left her full-time job as a consultant to focus on her clothing line, which is now carried by the likes of Hudson's Bay and Shop TSC. “Empowered women empower women!”, Addai declared, dazzling in an immaculately tailored, tangerine orange two-piece set from her own collection. She added that “if you have the opportunity to open the door for another woman, please do it and do it from a pure heart”. Addai shared challenges she had to overcome including shipping and staffing difficulties during Covid, financial strain and imposter syndrome. She closed out by reminding us that our childhood experiences shape us as adults and said “Let’s encourage our daughters and the girls in our lives to live boldly, loudly, audaciously, and just do it!”  

The evening was a smashing success all around. Ambitions and aspirations were shared and celebrated, and women's voices were amplified not only by the microphone and the (fabulous) acoustics in the rotunda, but by the sheer drive, hustle, and encouragement that was so clearly present that night. Ann Armstrong, Director of ICUBE, was also there to support and shared that Pitch with a Twist “uplifts women, their voices and their entrepreneurial aspirations. The Pitch was an evening of inspiration and hope as we celebrated IWD 2024.” 

Congratulations to all of the winners and all the best to the incredible women embarking on their entrepreneurial journeys. We look forward to another great event next year.