Local start-up firms compete for cash prizes at LISC event
Local Initiatives Support Corporation Boston hosted their third annual pitch contest for early-stage startups owned by women and minority entrepreneurs last week in Dorchester, awarding up to $12,500 in cash prizes sponsored by Citizens Bank.
The first-place prize of $7,500 went to Zainab Sumu Primitive Modern, a local fashion business owned by Zainab Sumu and nominated by the Center for Women and Enterprise. The second-place prize of $2,500 was awarded to Sanaa With Friends, owned by Victoria Downes and Taneekah Johnson and nominated by The Urban Labs; and the remaining $2,500 was awarded to Express Cuts 10.18, founded by Marcelous T. Atmore and nominated by the Fairmount Innovation Lab.
The other two contestants who pitched their businesses to a panel of judges and an auditorium full of people were food startup Vita Pura, founded by Vanessa Vajara and nominated by Commonwealth Kitchen; as well as software solutions business Langston Corporation, founded by Adam Taylor and nominated by Smarter in the City.
The panel of judges were: Lakshmi Balachandra, assistant professor of entrepreneurship at Babson College; Rica Elysee, CEO of BeautyLynk; Biplaw Rai, co-owner of Dudley Cafe; and Glynn Lloyd, executive director of Eastern Bank’s Foundation for Business Equity.
The “people’s choice” third-place prize was chosen by the event’s attendees, who voted for the best business pitch via a smartphone polling system. Marv Neal, host of The Urban Heat on 98.1 FM and founder of nonprofit 365 Dad, was MC for the night and catered food was provided by local businesses Jamaica Mi Hungry and Sweet Teez Bakery.
“Our goal is to supercharge our ecosystem for women and people of color,” said Karen Kelleher, executive director of LISC Boston.
Karleen Porcena, economic opportunity program officer for LISC Boston, said, “Boston has a lot of resources, but it can sometimes be really disconnected. We want to bring those resources together and showcase a different narrative of what Boston looks like.”
She continued, “Boston has had this narrative of being old-fashioned, dominated by white culture and tradition, and that narrative is changing with events like this.”
With the business contestants spanning various industries from technology and food to design and social events, Porcena said, “All of the contestants are super creative and ambitious. They saw a need in the market and filled it.”
Sumu of Zainab Sumu Primitive Modern is from Sierra Leone and creates artwork and clothing while traveling to Northern African and Western African countries, basing her creations on the distinct culture of each country. Launched in 2015 after Sumu attended Massachusetts College of Art and Design, the brand has a South End showroom and pieces are available for purchase at places like SoWa Market and the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.
Sanaa With Friends is a multicultural painting experience bringing people together of various backgrounds. Similar to Paint Nite events, Sanaa With Friends hosts guided painting events that are more culturally inclusive to clients of color.
According to co-founders Downes and Johnson, Sanaa With Friends has hosted more than 70 events since launching, including birthday and bachelorette parties. Each painting event is highly customizable, and the company works with local artists who create artworks specifically for Sanaa With Friends’ customers to recreate in a social setting.
Express Cuts 10.18 is an on-demand grooming service that takes “everything we love about the barbershop” and brings it to the customer, according to Atmore. The mobile app platform lets clients with busy schedules book local barbers at their requested time and location.
Vajara of Vita Pura pitched her business as an upgraded version of a traditional Brazilian snack made with crisped yucca flower and filled with cheese. Vita Pura’s cheese puffs are not available on the market yet, but Vajara said her food product is extremely popular among friends and family and is made with all-natural ingredients. “You won’t feel guilty if you eat 15 at a time,” she joked.
Langston Corporation offers intelligent software solutions for the black experience, CEO Taylor said. The corporation’s first product, the “Black” app, collects news and stories from the world’s biggest influencers of black culture such as Essence or The Root. To combat Google search bias, the black app provides content that is socially and culturally relevant to black users.
According to Taylor, the app has been downloaded in 92 different countries.
“We collected millions of data points, analyzed the data and pushed it to our AI engine,” said Taylor. In response to a judge’s question about using the term “black” instead of “urban,” Taylor said, “It would not feel genuine to use urban, even though it has more mass appeal.”
The winners of the cash prizes will use the funds to further develop their businesses by implementing marketing campaigns, hiring new staff and focusing on innovation.
“Navigating the system for small businesses is so hard, whether you’re trying to find a loan, a retail space, or build your credit,” said Porcena. “Our vision is to uplift both the talent and the organizations that are here helping the businesses day in and day out.”
LISC Boston provides funding, financing and technical assistance to community development corporations (CDCs), nonprofit developers, grassroots organizations, and policy and advocacy organizations throughout Massachusetts.