People plugged into the St. Louis entrepreneurial scene might recognize the name Michelle Robinson. If not, they might be familiar with DemiBlue, her vegan nail polish brand that went from selling locally in boutiques and shops to getting shelf space in Walmart.
Robinson, like other entrepreneurs who have gone through the University of Missouri–St. Louis’ Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Accelerator program, has grown her business, created jobs and started building generational wealth for her family as well as contributed to the economic growth of the region.
The UMSL DEI Accelerator, an initiative of UMSL Accelerate, has gained traction since its launch in 2020 to serve as a catalyst for underserved entrepreneurs such as Robinson. The program continues to get recognized as a valuable resource for those small business owners who want to scale. It has also supported UMSL students through educational internship opportunities.
The Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation awarded the program a $300,000 grant through the foundation’s Heartland Challenge, which funds programs, projects and initiatives over a three-year period that build on the assets of the community to support business owners and founders — especially those that are not represented in the entrepreneurship landscapes. The UMSL DEI Accelerator was one of eight organizations to receive funding.
“Adding Ewing Marion Kauffman to the growing list of sponsors affirms that this model presents an opportunity to truly transform lives,” said Dan Lauer, founding executive director of UMSL Accelerate.
The foundation put out a request for proposals as it sought to recognize projects and enterprises located in Missouri, Iowa, Nebraska and Kansas through the Heartland Challenge.
It was looking for projects that had a clear outline of how to help diverse founders on their journey to success. They were also looking for an entrepreneurial ecosystem that is contributing to the economic advancement of its region.
Lauer is happy others outside St. Louis are becoming aware of the value of the program.
“We’ve demonstrated impact,” Lauer said. “The founders are doing well and thriving. We’re getting a lot of publicity and changing hearts and minds.”
The program’s influence has been exhibited in companies like Pop Pop Hurray!, a family-owned gourmet popcorn business that was able to scale with the help of the DEI Accelerator. In addition to opening a second location and securing an exclusive deal with Busch Stadium, the company was able to hire an intern from the UMSL College of Business Administration to help with operations. The Heartland Challenge grant will help fund wages for interns, continuing the opportunity for UMSL business students to get paid while they learn.
The support from the Kauffman Foundation will also help the UMSL DEI Accelerator continue its support of founders like Robinson or Akeem Shannon, creator of FlipStik, a product that allows users to stick their phone onto different surfaces. The startup went from a small local business to being featured in Target as a result of getting connected to a product development firm through the program.
By helping entrepreneurs find success and grow their businesses, the UMSL DEI Accelerator is also helping contribute to economic growth in the region.
“It’s about community investment,” Lauer said. “It’s the whole vision around the chancellor’s workforce development to be leaders in job growth and wealth creation for this community. The DEI program is one of what we hope are many ways UMSL can solve problems, support the region and most importantly, attract entrepreneurially minded students to enroll.”
The grant served as further validation of the UMSL DEI Accelerator’s impact.
“The Heartland Challenge grant is very competitive and prestigious, Lauer said. “For me, it’s the community responding to our collective efforts and saying, ‘Keep going.’”