By Sarah Thomas
Excitement and tears overcame Michelle Robinson on Wednesday morning.
That was completely understandable as she’d just learned that her business, DEMIBlue Natural Nails & Creative, had been chosen as a winning founder for the inaugural Diversity, Equity & Inclusion Accelerator at the University of Missouri–St. Louis.
In doing so, Robinson had become one of six startups to receive $50,000 in non-dilutive capital in addition to $200,000 in in-kind resources and the opportunity to participate in an 8-week, best-in-class business development program in early 2021.
“I truly want to serve women,” Robinson said. “I truly want to see an impact. This means so much.”
Dan Lauer, executive director of UMSL Accelerate and Monique Bynum, program director of UMSL DEI Accelerator and senior director of development at Boone Center Incorporated, presented a check to each of the winners during the virtual announcement event held Wednesday morning.
“St. Louis is home to an abundance of entrepreneurial talent with good ideas, but not everyone has the same access to opportunity,” Lauer said. “We are doing our part in moving the needle through significant capital injection.”
Robinson’s Natural Nails & Creative is a line of vegan-friendly nail polishes and nail services that skip acetone and drills. After her mother was diagnosed with cancer, Robinson was inspired to provide a healthier alternative to traditional polish that served both the African American community and others.
Her business fits perfectly into the DEI Accelerator’s mission, which is to foster diversity, equity and inclusion, to create more opportunity for startups and provide entrepreneurs with equal access to grow their businesses.
The UMSL Accelerate team encouraged diverse founders to apply regardless of socioeconomic background, education level, race, ethnicity, age, gender, immigration status or lived experience. More than 430 of the area’s brightest early-stage entrepreneurs applied, highlighting both the abundance of entrepreneurial talent in the St. Louis region and the need to better fund and engage underrepresented founders.
“We created the UMSL DEI accelerator because we know that there is an abundance of talent among minority entrepreneurs and yet they are still underrepresented in the ecosystem both locally and globally,” Bynum shared at the virtual event. “UMSL saw an opportunity to fill a gap, specifically the gap of funding and investment. From day one this has been about non-diluted capital injection, expert mentorship and a best-in-class accelerator that will help these founders grow.”
UMSL has long been a national leader in fostering diversity, equity and inclusion to promote social mobility through education and a regional advocate for entrepreneurship and economic development. The DEI Accelerator, UMSL Chancellor Kristin Sobolik said, represents an innovative way to meld those strengths to improve local communities.
“We are thrilled to support these impressive founders, and we hope to be a true catalyst for significant business growth and success,” Sobolik said. “When we get behind good ideas and bright people, our whole region wins.”
The program is funded through support from Ameren, Edward Jones and Express Scripts, which recognize both the need and possibilities when taking a chance on six early-stage business owners. Each of the companies was represented at the virtual announcement event.
Tim Wentworth, CEO of Evernorth, Express Scripts’ parent company, addressed the founders at the virtual announcement event.
“The DEI Accelerator for us represents a coming together of what we have stood for, for a very long time: inclusion, opportunity and innovation,” he said. “From our perspective, it was natural to continue our relationship with UMSL in this really profoundly fun and interesting way.”
Representatives from each of the sponsors shared advice with the founders during the virtual event.
“It’s so important to have a plan and a purpose to be prepared so that when luck does come your way you can capitalize on it but not rely on it,” said Zar Toolan, principal of Client Strategies at Edward Jones. “The advice that I would give to our founders is focus on the preparation and planning but when luck comes be ready to act on it.”
The six winning founders include:
- George Holmes, PhD, and Keiry “Katie” Moreno Bonnett of Hire Henry, which developed a heavy-duty robotic lawnmower to provide landscaping services
- Tyrean Lewis of Heru Urban Farming, a farm providing healthy sustainable produce options, cooking classes and health education
- Eric Love and Darren Williams of St. Louis Assembly Pros, a full-service furniture assembly company
- Michelle Robinson of DEMIblue Natural Nails & Creative, a vegan-friendly nail polish line and and provides safer nail services
- Akeem Shannon of Flipstik, a customizable kickstand for smart phones to enable simple hands-free use
- Darren and Charlene Lopez-Young of The Fattened Caf , a Filipino barbecue pop-up restaurant created in an effort to make first-generation and Filipino immigrants feel at home in the St. Louis community
The first accelerator will begin in January 2021. The public will be invited to meet the founders at a Demo Day event in the spring.
More information about the program is available at https://www.umsl.edu/accelerate/dei.html.