15 entrepreneurs present startups during UMSL DEI Accelerator Pitch Day for a chance at a $50,000 capital injection

by | Nov 22, 2021

The founders had only five minutes to present problems, solutions, business plans and more to a panel of judges for a chance to win a $50,000 non-dilutive capital injection.

Paris Rollins is the founder of Picky Eaterz, which caters healthier versions of children’s meals to area daycares and schools and delivers fresh baby food and is looking to expand to foods for pregnant women. (Photos by August Jennewein)

Student housing loan debt, getting a comb through curly hair, feeding kids healthy food, keeping house plants alive, finding skin care suitable for specific health conditions or dealing with women’s hair loss are all problems without easy answers.

Yet the entrepreneurs pitching their solutions to those problems and others during Thursday’s University of Missouri–St. Louis Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Accelerator Pitch Day had just five minutes to present problems, solutions, business plans and more to a panel of judges for a chance to win a $50,000 non-dilutive capital injection and access to a six-week business development program, mentorship, paid UMSL interns and incubator space.

“I was so nervous, but can you be nervous and relaxed at the same time?” said Madeline Jackson. “Whenever I’m talking about my product, I get excited, so I was excited. And I think that was able to flow out of me, that passion.”

Founder of NanaComb Vision, which manufactures a comb shaped similar to a human hand that glides easily through curly and coily hair, Jackson was among 15 founders sharing their enthusiasm for their products and services during the Shark-Tank-like event that’s the final step in the vetting process for the six spots in the UMSL DEI Accelerator. The selected cohort will be announced on Dec. 8.

The DEI Accelerator, which debuted last year, comes from the joint efforts of UMSL Accelerate Founding Executive Director Dan Lauer; managing director Monique Bynum, the senior director of development at Boone Center Incorporated; strategic advisor Mike Bynum, a senior associate at FedTech; and Assistant Teaching Professor and Director of UMSL Accelerate Michael Kehoe. The program is designed to boost early-stage startups founded by underrepresented entrepreneurs.

UMSL Accelerate received 189 applications that were narrowed down in a series of steps to a final 15. In addition to NanaComb, those finalists included Bloom Beauty Brand, Butter Love, EDUrain, Kwema, Nebula Media Group, Picky Eaterz, Pop Pop Hurray!, Posie Pots & 3D Prints, Pure Vibes Co-Op, Sew St. Louis, Bold Xchange, Top Tier Contracting, VR Creative and ZenHammer.

Judges included representatives from UMSL, Ameren, the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, the City of St. Louis, Saint Louis University, Greater St. Louis Inc. and others who considered the pitches on criteria such as the founders’ understanding of the problems, traction, plausible impact on St. Louis, proposed use of accelerator resources and team members.

Judges included representatives from UMSL, Ameren, FedTech, the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, the City of St. Louis, Saint Louis University, Greater St. Louis Inc. and others.

The founders included companies at different stages, some pre-revenue and some more established. One of the latter was Pop Pop Hurray!, a popcorn company homebased in Ferguson, Missouri, where customers can make custom-blended mixes that launched in 2020.

“Since we opened, we’ve had 5,000 customers, which far exceeded our expectations being that we opened in the middle of a global pandemic,” said Pop Pop Hurray! founder Tony Davis. “We were able to earn over $220,000 in revenue in just our first year of business.”

In addition to the Ferguson storefront, Pop Pop Hurray! provides popcorn orders for area businesses, has launched a nonprofit arm, Hooray for Hope, which supports a variety of causes, and is investigating franchising.

Davis, who is a 2011 graduate of the UMSL College of Business Administration, describes himself as a “serial entrepreneur” with work experience in marketing. He found his niche in the popcorn business thanks to his love for the product.

He decided to launch Pop Pop Hurray! after noticing that most popcorn companies only had basic flavors such as cheese or butter. He now provides wild flavors that range from strawberry cheesecake to pizza to watermelon as well as more conventional options.

Though Pop Pop Hurray! has already seen significant success in its first year, Davis notes that being selected for the DEI Accelerator would help him expand the business and structure the franchising properly.

Other founders hoped to increase their educational outreach, build training programs, expand marketing efforts, hone in on product-market fit, increase manufacturing capacity, hire more team members and move into storefronts.

“The money would go toward building our legacy, which consists of a retail and production space, new equipment for efficiency and building a solid team,” said La’Crassia Wilderness, founder of the skincare company Butter Love. “Now, I’m sure you all know that a business is only as strong as its team.”

Jessica Rogen

Jessica Rogen

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