Entrepreneur makes a pitch at the White House

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Print this page by Joan Tupponce
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Aazia Mickens-Dessaso is the co-founder of
Hampton-based FreePing. Photo by Mark Rhodes

Entrepreneurs are used to giving their elevator speeches to potential investors. Few startup founders, however, get the chance to explain their businesses at the White House.

Aazia Mickens-Dessaso, the co-founder of Hampton-based FreePing, was invited to attend a White House conference in May, “Start The Spark: Emerging Global Entrepreneurs.” The event brought together entrepreneurs from around the world, highlighting the importance of startups in finding innovative solutions to issues such as poverty and climate change.

“It’s one thing to visit the White House and quite another to be a guest of the president,” says Mickens-Dessaso, 27. “I got to shake the president’s hand and have conversations with him about youth and women.”

She started FreePing last year with business partner Britni Jones. The software company provides free streams of information to prepaid mobile phone subscribers in emerging markets.

“It’s mostly utility information, such as bus schedules and emergency alerts,” she says. The free content is provided using a “missed-call” practice Mickens-Dessaso observed in Brazil as a foreign languages and area studies fellow with U.S. Department of Education.

“It’s an intentionally dropped phone call that people with prepaid cards use so they don’t use their data,” she says. “They call, let it ring and then hang up.” The callers can then get information texted to them. “Incoming text messages for prepaid users are typically free,” she says

She is introducing Free-Ping in Brazil, South Africa and Kenya. The company’s customers include international nonprofit organizations and retailers that pay a monthly fee.

After her fellowship, Mickens-Dessaso pitched the idea for her company at the startup competition in Hampton, “Start! Peninsula 2.0,” in 2013. “We were one of the top three winners of that competition, and we received a small investment amount,” she says. “Last year we started the company at the Peninsula Technology Incubator.”

Mickens-Dessaso and the other entrepreneurs at the White House were questioned by investors from the ABC television series “Shark Tank.” “We received questions from all of them,” she says. “The most vocal was Mark Cuban [the billionaire owner of the Dallas Mavericks pro basketball team].”

Cuban told her that Free-Ping was a great idea. “He also commented on the usability of the product and that we were in the right markets,” she says. “He discussed a few partnerships we should pursue, like Facebook.”

Mickens-Dessaso and Jones hope to expand their staff, which currently has only three employees. “We are looking to hire a few more developers,” she says,

She would like to expand her customer base as well. “Retailers have picked up on the value of this for the distribution of their content,” she says.

She has seen added interest from investors and potential customers since the White House conference. “I am optimistic,” she says.

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