Charlotte Oxnam. (Christina Basso photo)

Lots of big businesses spend lots of big bucks trying to develop catchy names. They hire consultants. Analyze data. Focus on focus groups.

But Charlotte Oxnam did something a bit less expensive.

She talked to her mom.

Oxnam’s business startup, Cue the Curves, is one of 25 semi-finalists in Northwestern University’s annual “Venture Cat” competition, where student entrepreneurs try to convince expert judges that their business idea might just become the Next Big Thing.

More than $325,000 in prize money is distributed, all of which goes to help the entries develop as going concerns. First prize is $150,000, with smaller amounts on down the winners’ ladder.

Cue the Curves is an online platform to connect plus-sized women to attractive and stylish clothing.

Oxnam, a third-year student from Maryland, says her mom came up with the name.

They were kicking around ideas, Oxnam explains, when mom said, “Cue the Curves.”

“Both of us got silent for a sec,” Oxnam says. “And that was it!”

She adds “I like to call Cue the Curves a love letter to my younger self.”

“I spent years,” Oxnam explains, “struggling with my body image” and with clothing which all looked the same, and not very attractive at that.

“At least 95% of plus-sized clothing doesn’t have much physical presence,” Oxnam says.

Hence, Cue the Curves, which Oxnam describes as “a style-first approach to empower women to find clothing that fits them.”

Data generated also helps manufacturers and retailers “look at overall trends and help them make better clothing designs.” Data collection is one way to monetize the site. Another is by commissions from “affiliates” who list brands on the site and make sales, although the listing itself is free.

Cue the Curves is in the Consumer Products and Services category, one of five Venture Cat areas (the others are Business Products and Services, Energy and Sustainability, Life Sciences and Medical Innovations, and Social Impact).

As with Cue the Curves, each entry is from a Northwestern student or group of students, undergrad or graduate. And each entrant is trying to find, or even create, demand for their product or service. In other words, pure entrepreneurship.

The term “escape velocity” applies here, according to Mike Raab, interim director of The Garage, one of the organizations running Venture Cat. “Escape velocity” is the speed needed to launch, in this case, not a rocket, but a business.

Unlike Cue the Curves, The Garage was not named by somebody’s mom. Rather, Raab explains the term refers to “the location for a typical tech startup,” like YouTube, for example. You know, like somebody’s real garage.

This Garage is a co-working space on campus where several entrepreneurship programs are housed.

Other involved organizations have more traditional names, like the Kellogg School of Management, The Farley Center for Innovation, and the Donald Pritzker Entrepreneurship Law Center.

Financial sponsors are the Levy Institute, Lanny and Sharon Martin and Exelon.

Venture Cat began in 2014, and many of the winners have gone on to establish successful businesses.

But “even non-winners walk away with something which will help prepare them” for getting a startup off the ground, says Raab. For example, competitors are paired with graphic design firms and also with “pitch coaches” (Not “pitching coaches.” That’s baseball) who help the student entrepreneurs polish their presentations.

Each entrant gets only seven minutes in front of the judges, so those pitches have to be right over the plate (OK, sorry for the baseball reference again).

And while a lot of prize money is at stake, along with the “escape velocity” to raise other funds, Raab says cash is not really the motivating factor.

“What I find really inspiring,” he notes, is that most of the entrants “are driven by a mission … a problem they’re trying to solve.”

Some of those proposed solutions, based on the entries, deal with everything from medical imaging to wildfire detection to helping math teachers better review student work and provide feedback.

For the past two years, Venture Cat was held remotely, due to COVID-19. But this year’s session is back in person, which, Raab says, means “more energy and excitement.”

The Venture Cat winners will be announced at the 6 p.m. public pitch showcase on Wednesday at the Kellogg Global Hub.

Cue the Competitors.

Jeff Hirsh joined the Evanston Now reporting team in 2020 after a 40-year award-winning career as a broadcast journalist in Cincinnati, Ohio.

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