Most nights, Chelsea Sprayregen gets a good six or seven hours of sack time—no small feat for a woman juggling being a student at Booth and the CEO and cofounder of the promising startup Provide. “I don’t do anything else besides work,” Sprayregen said without a hint of regret. But, she said, “I can’t function without sleep.”
On May 22, however, nerves would keep her tossing and turning all night. It was the eve of easily her most important professional moment, one that would help turn her dream into a reality: overhauling and simplifying how childcare business owners operate.
The next day, along with her fellow Evening MBA students on the Provide team, Sprayregen would present to a room full of business-savvy judges (including several Booth alumni), as well as six other finalist teams competing to win the 2017 John Edwardson, ’72, Social New Venture Challenge.
Fearful that watching her fellow finalists’ presentations might make her neurotic, she decided to wander the University of Chicago campus with Provide COO Hannah Meyer, to clear their heads before it was their turn. On the walk, Sprayregen got a text from Provide vice president of finance Rob Seery and Provide content director Eve Poczatek, both of whom had stayed behind at Harper Center to watch the other presentations. The message: the $50,000 prize pool had been doubled. “We were like, ‘Well, we were nervous before,’” Sprayregen said.
Provide offers a software-based, back-office solution for day-care business owners, allowing them to enroll in government subsidy programs, manage licenses and accreditation, and maximize tax deductions. “There’s no one else doing this right now,” Meyer said.
I thought we were in the top half of the finalists. Beyond that, I thought it was a toss-up.
When pitching during the SNVC, teams are encouraged to include in their presentation an amount they feel necessary to get their business off the ground. Not only did Provide win first prize, the team took home every penny of the $60,000 they requested. “I thought we were in the top half of the finalists,” Sprayregen said. “Beyond that, I thought it was a toss-up.” Provide plans to use most of the winnings on development costs, marketing, branding, and pay for interns.
The seeds of Provide were sown several years ago while Sprayregen was the director of public policy at the health-care startup BeneStream, working with low-income families to set up Medicaid and food stamps. “Childcare just came up over and over again,” she said. “It was such a source of instability and a huge cost for them. That’s when I started thinking about it.”
Meyer, Provide’s only other full-time staffer, joined the team about a year ago. Throughout the SNVC experience, she found that the coaches at Booth’s Rustandy Center for Social Sector Innovation and the Polsky Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation provided invaluable guidance. “We did a lot of solid work on our own,” Meyer said. “But they really pointed us in the right direction. Right off the bat, they said we needed to do customer discovery—a lot of it. They helped us think about what story we were trying to tell. We talked financials. We talked about how to measure our social impact. The [New Social Ventures] class is truly helpful.”
Meyer’s work with Provide has also earned her one of the Rustandy Center’s inaugural Tarrson Social Venture Fellowships, which provide financial support to UChicago students and recent alumni who are committed full time after graduation to growing startups that solve social or environmental problems.
Currently, Provide has 27 Illinois-based childcare providers on its growing client roster. In the long run, Sprayregen hopes to evolve Provide’s suite of services and extend nationally.
“We’re participating in a political movement for fully funded, universal early-childhood education, and there are a lot of people who are doing a great job fighting for this political change,” Sprayregen said. “But we want to connect the providers who sign up for our service with those existing movements. Ultimately, that’s how we’ll be able to solve the problems that we’re working on today.”
—By Blair R. Fischer