DEI Accelerator Demo Day shows progress and success of latest class of founders

by | May 31, 2022

Founders Will Bubenik, Tony Davis, La'Crassia Wilderness, Valeria Rodriguez and Paris Rollins showcased their businesses during last week's event.
Five people stand and smile.

(From left) Will Bubenik, Tony Davis, La’Crassia Wilderness, Valeria Rodriguez and Paris Rollins, who made up the second cohort of UMSL’s Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Accelerator, showcased their businesses last week at Demo Day. (Photos by August Jennewein)

La’Crassia Wilderness suffered from severe and chronically dry skin as a child.

“I would scratch the skin off my legs,” she said. “I couldn’t find solutions. Every morning I would wake up scratching, and it was so annoying. It makes you feel self-conscious about your skin. So, I did something about it.”

And that’s how Butter Love, a line of body butter and other beauty and bath products was created.

Butter Love was one of the brands on display last Tuesday as the University of Missouri–St. Louis hosted Demo Day for entrepreneurs who made up the second cohort in the Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Accelerator, powered by UMSL Accelerate.

Wilderness was one of five startup founders who presented their products to a full audience and potential investors, including representatives from Ameren and Edward Jones, who have partnered with UMSL on the DEI Accelerator. In addition to Wilderness, UMSL alumnus Tony Davis of Pop Pop Hurray!, Will Bubenik of Nebula Media, Paris Rollins of Picky Eaterz and Valeria Rodriguez of VR Creative all presented their products.

Each founder told a story of why they created their business and the progress it’s made as a result of the resources received in the DEI Accelerator program.

“It’s meant the ability to scale faster,” said Rollins, whose business, Picky Eaterz, creates healthy meals for children. “And then also the way the mentor was able to guide me throughout my journey. I feel like I was able to do more in the eight weeks on this journey than I would have been able to do on my own in a year. The media coverage, the mentorship, the free help from an intern and also with the cash I was able to excel way faster.”

The DEI Accelerator program helped Davis fulfill the vision for his business that began in 2020, including beginning the process of opening other locations in addition to his flagship popcorn shop in Ferguson. That which created ten jobs. He has also expanded his brand by obtaining a partnership with Busch Stadium to be the official popcorn of the St. Louis Cardinals.

“Getting that first check was big in our expansion,” Davis said. “The program helped us look at our brand development and cost structure. Those things will put you on a trajectory. The program also connected us to resources and mentors. They helped me talk through several different variations of where we want to go.”

St. Louis County Executive Dr. Sam Page spent his birthday at the event to support diverse entrepreneurs.

“St. Louis has a great reputation for startups,” Page said. “And we need to make sure that we are focusing on DEI in every aspect of our community and culture. And this DEI for startups, this accelerator is an important part of that opportunity. We know that there are a lot of opportunities in St. Louis, and we want to make sure those opportunities are available for everyone, and this accelerator levels the playing field.”


Sam Page stands in front of the Flipstik table chatting with the owner.

County Executive Dr. Sam Page chats with owner Akeem Shannon of Flipstik, who was a member of the DEI Accelerator’s inaugural cohort.

Joan Phillips, dean of the College of Business Administration, agreed.

“There is so much talent and creativity,” Phillips said. “And we can drive economic development and vitality by harnessing that talent. Too many times underserved populations don’t get that same opportunity. Each and every single one of these products and services are all targeted to make our society better, and we need to give them an opportunity so that they can continue to deliver the value to each of us.”

Delivering value to society is one of the main goals of Bubenik’s business, Nebula Media, which creates digital accessibility for those with disabilities that make using the internet a challenge. Bubenik credits the DEI Accelerator program for helping his business complete its mission and offering a community of support.

“The DEI accelerator has been transformational,” said Bubenik, who has secured over 50 new clients. “Just the sense of community, being a part of other founders that are trying to do something impactful for the community – it’s been incredible. The transparency and honesty amongst the group was important because everyone shared their successes. We talked about our struggles, and we were able to really grow as a cohort and as a community because we just had that baseline of honesty and transparency.”


Owners of Fatted Calf server their food at the Demo Day event

Food from the Fattened Caf, a former participant in the UMSL DEI Accelerator, was a big hit at Demo Day.

The DEI Accelerator has been a source of pride for the university as it exemplifies the values of the institution by contributing to the economic well-being of the region.

“I’m so proud that that first cohort has been so successful moving into the second cohort,” Chancellor Kristin Sobolik said. “It’s now expanding out into other areas that are really important for the development of economic and inclusive prosperity in our region.”

Wendy Todd

Wendy Todd