by Curran Neenan

IdeaFlight, a business accelerator with four co-founders hailing from Washington University’s Law School, took home two wins at the Global Legal Hackathon, a worldwide competition for legal innovators. IdeaFlight serves entrepreneurs from underserved backgrounds, offering tools like mentorship, pro bono legal advice, and networking.

Brooke Bishop saw it unfold on Shark Tank. The two Black women who founded vegan cosmetics startup Lip Bar were laughed off the show by the panel of well-heeled investors who lend money to promising businesses; one Shark called their products “clown makeup.” Several years later, Lip Bar was in dozens of Target stores across the country.

Bishop co-founded IdeaFlight with four Washington University Law School students. A nonprofit business accelerator for entrepreneurs of color, IdeaFlight helps companies like Lip Bar when they run into roadblocks on the traditional avenues to success.

While attending St. Louis University Law school, Bishop became concerned with racial disparities in access to capital, one of the main drivers of the racial entrepreneurship gap. According to a 2020 report by business data aggregator Crunchbase, Black and Latino led startups received just 2.4% of total venture capital funding since 2015. Bishop sees stories like Lip Bar as emblematic of the institutional barriers that face startups led by women and people of color.

“Who knows how many stories there are like that,” Bishop said.

That question weighed heavy on Bishop’s mind last Spring when she attended the 2020 St. Louis regional stage of the Global Legal Hackathon (GLH), an international competition devoted to legal innovation.

“[The organizers] said you can’t just say a problem and not have a solution,” Bishop said. “So, I got up and explained the disparities.”

Bishop’s message resonated with four other attendees at the event: Washington University Law students Ellen Komlos, Zack Kalinowski, Mackenzie Allan, and Najeebah Hussain. Together, the five developed an idea for a web-based platform that would connect entrepreneurs to resources like legal help and networking. It was Hussain who suggested the playful format Bishop calls “something like a dating site.”

Hussain, Allan, Komlos, and Kalinowski heard about the event at a talk presented by Washington University Law School’s career center, where prominent St. Louis law firm Bryan Cave Leighton Paisner mentioned that they sponsored the GLH’s regional competition.

IdeaFlight won in the “Inclusivity” category of the St. Louis regional competition in March 2020, and impressed at the virtual semi-finals with a video featuring endorsements from Legal Services of Eastern Missouri and local businesses. The team was set to attend the global finals in Romania that May before COVID forced a cancellation.

IdeaFlight went semi-dormant when the country shut down and team members refocused on other priorities. “We were thrown a lot of wrenches with COVID,” Bishop said. But the team took them in stride, and this May they won the postponed global finals in two categories: Inclusivity and Access to Justice.

Since their win, IdeaFlight has focused on re-establishing connections that dwindled over the pandemic, growing their team, and seeking out investors. As a registered 501(c)(3) that hopes to offer its services free of charge, IdeaFlight is reliant on outside grants and investors. President Mackenzie Allan hopes to connect with these potential funders at the 2021 GLH global finals in London this September; one of the spoils of victory is a ticket to next year’s finals where networking opportunities abound.

Allan says IdeaFlight is planning a hiring spree at the end of summer. The goal is to expand the team—currently a lawyer, two third-year law students, and a computer engineer—to include members with backgrounds in finance, entrepreneurship, and business.

“We need a variety of people or we’re not going to be successful,” Allan said.

In the meantime, IdeaFlight is finding its niche. As they prepare to launch their service, the idealism of the nascent startup stage has shifted to accommodate the real-world needs of their potential clients.

“We had big, bright, great ideas for everything we wanted to accomplish,” Allan said. “I think we came to a realization in the past few months that it’s just too broad.”

“We had big, bright, great ideas for everything we wanted to accomplish. I think we came to a realization in the past few months that it’s just too broad.”– Mackenzie Allan

Allan says the grind of the competitions engendered “a little bit of doing it quick instead of doing it right.” Since their win at the GLH finals, IdeaFlight has decelerated and dived into market research, talking to local businesses about what services they’d like to see. Allan stresses the importance of tailoring the product to the consumer and not the other way around.

While currently in stasis to accommodate members’ busy schedules, Allan is targeting August 1, when commitments loosen, as a “full force” relaunch date. But according to Najeebah Hussain, the overarching goal is to get it right.

“We just want to make sure that we’re putting out something that helps people,” Hussain said.