Another Year, Another Challenge: 2021 Big Pitch Student Competition
Last year’s Big Pitch competition coincided with an unprecedented shift. Our team and the students involved with last year’s program vividly remember the last few days of our Spring Break accelerator — as the students were preparing to pitch for the $20,000 grand prize, news broke that cases of COVID-19 were identified in the United States. Towards the end of the week, the community college school district announced spring closures; at the time, no one had any idea about how long this would last.
With that in mind, CEI decided to postpone the live event that was planned for the following week and the students waited patiently for direction. Eventually, we realized that the safest course was to make the 3rd annual pitch competition closed to the public and completely virtual. The students adapted quickly and handled it well, but our team was left with questions about how to run the following year’s competition.
Faced with so many unknowns, we turned to our trusted Big Pitch faculty contacts for advice. As business educators who work one-on-one with students, we asked them if they thought we should cancel the program altogether. Without hesitation, they shared the importance of the Big Pitch to their students and that many of the colleges were already planning to host their own qualifying pitch competitions to find the best student for the program. We knew that we needed to get to work and figure out how to pivot with the health and safety of students, staff and speakers in mind.
In the end, we knew that an in-person accelerator was essential to foster the sense of collaboration between competitors. To pull this off safely, we moved The Big Pitch to our new downtown facility at the Wexford Science and Technology building on the Phoenix Biomedical Campus. This state-of-the-art center allowed us to space everyone out, stream mentor sessions, and allow speakers the room to deliver invaluable lessons to eager student entrepreneurs. One of CEI’s client’s, Beacon Biomedical, even donated time and resources to provide students with free COVID-19 Antigen tests. Through this team effort, participating students could focus on learning from CEI’s subject matter experts and creating a strong business plan throughout the week.
MewFactory is an online retailer that turns customized art requests into products like stickers, t-shirts, posters, clothing, prints, and more.
Orbital 360 creates virtual tours for real estate and other property management venues.
Business: Storm Leigh
Storm Leigh offers handmade, eco and animal friendly fabrics for fashion designers who want to use sustainable products.
Business: Naturelle LLC
Naturelle LLC develops hair accessories, body products and candles made from ingredients manufactured in African countries to support women entrepreneurs in Morocco, the Ivory Coast and more.
Business: Givers Unite
Givers Unite is built on a worker-cooperative business model where donated items are sold online with retail locations opening in the future.
Business: The Coffee Lady
The Coffee Lady provides mobile and late-night coffee services to third-shift workers who need an extra boost when cafe options are scarce.
Business: Women Who Box
Women Who Box is an online community with an emphasis on mental health and empowerment. They provide online boxing classes, boxing bootcamps, and coaching to support women and girls who are interested in the sport of boxing.
Estrella.Live is a Community-driven EdTech company that offers Crypto-powered scholarships, grants, and diplomas for courses, connectivity and art for underserved students.
Business: R Co.
R Co. is interested in researching and developing a motor that runs on water for cars or emergency generators, with byproduct of oxygen (clean air). All the technology that would make each component work already exists.
A Business Accelerator in the Age of COVID-19
This year, The Big Pitch looked different, but the students were as dedicated as ever. To ensure everyone’s safety, we hosted the event at the brand new CEI LabForce facility. This space gave the students plenty of room to safely work while speakers came in throughout the day to present. Unlike previous accelerator weeks, mentors and pitch coaches met with students virtually so that room capacity stayed low.
Students masked-up and ready to learn during The Big Pitch Accelerator Week.
Mentor conversations took place virtually to keep capacity small.
Liz Warren of SMCC's Storytelling Institute, worked with students virtually to develop storytelling skills for their pitch.
“This year's participants were fully engaged and their transformations was remarkable,” said Patti DuBois. “We honor the fact that participants give up their spring break and work really hard for a week. In return, we provide business lessons from the best in Arizona — serial entrepreneurs, those who have secured investment, successful sales and marketing teams, and more. CEI's goal is that all, no matter the winner, walks away with valuable knowledge to get their business going.”
Like true entrepreneurs, the competitors adapted and responded as needed. Even under their masks, you could tell that each of them were excited to be in the room and eager to learn. And by the end of the week, their business plans and pitches had come a long way!
The Main Event
Of course, this wouldn’t be The Big Pitch without a few surprises. Although the pitch event was originally planned to be livestreamed, a network outage prevented this from happening. Even though they knew their supporters wouldn’t be able to cheer them on virtually from a safe distance, they still gave it their all for the panel of community leaders who graciously volunteered their time to judge the competition:
Heidi Jennanga, Co-Founder & CCO of WebPT
Eric Leshinskie, Interim Provost at Maricopa Community Colleges
David Richardson, Founder & CEO of bioSyntagma
Kevin Youngblood, President of Youngblood Works
Overall, the students did an incredible job. You can watch an enhanced recording of the entire event below and scroll down to learn about the winner!
The Winner of the 2021 Big Pitch Competition is...
Rio Salado student, Lennon Jackson!
Lennon Jackson pictured with Tom Schumann and Patti DuBois after her win!
Lennon is the founder of The Coffee Lady, a mobile coffee service that brings high-quality beverages to third shift workers who need a caffeine boost on their breaks. Jackson came up with the idea after losing her job in the service industry during the COVID-19 pandemic and took an overnight job at a call center. She found that vending machines were depleted during her shift and she was disappointed by gas station quality coffee, which was her only other option. Recognizing that third shift workers often adhere to strict break schedules, she knew that they needed more than a 24-hour cafe. This, combined with her extensive background in the coffee service industry, inspired her to launch her new venture.
After the event, Lennon said, “Winning the competition gave me the validation I needed to be confident in my business plan, something I’ve been thinking about for a while. So I’m excited to get a jumpstart on my business with the help of people who know what they’re doing and are here to support me.”
Before the accelerator week, she worked extensively with Rio Salado College’s faculty, staff, and used feedback from a panel of judges assembled for her school’s qualifying competition. “Lennon had to compete among six other students who entered Rio Salado’s competition,” shared Dr. Lily Davidov, Faculty Chair of Small Business/Entrepreneurship at Rio Salado College. "We prepared each of them with a solid presentation, held workshops, and organized a committee that included a small business consultant/adjunct faculty who worked with each student for two hours before and after they pitched. I admire Lennon for her dedication and growth mindset, as it was a tough competition at a college and district level.” Ruth Embleton, Small Business/Entrepreneurship Lead at Rio Salado, said “it was a pleasure working with Lennon Jackson through the coaching sessions prior to Rio Salado’s The Big Pitch competition. As she progressed from sharing her ideas to presenting in front of the college judges, I could see her confidence increase exponentially. She has the entrepreneurial spirit that is needed to be successful in promoting her business... I look forward to seeing where her dreams and goals take her!”
Despite some setbacks with that night’s event, the competing students pulled through to wow the judges. “Our judges saw that Lennon clearly identified a specific problem and offered a reasonable proposition to solve this for her customers,” said Tom Schumann, CEI Executive Director. “Because she is starting with this clear focus, we have a strong foundation to help Lennon over the coming year to build out this solution.”
Thank you to everyone who made this possible!
We hope you enjoyed the recap of this year’s Big Pitch program! We can’t wait to work with Lennon throughout the year to help her get her business off the ground.
As always, this program would not be possible without the incredible support of the community, our sponsors, and the presenters, mentors, coaches and judges who share their invaluable knowledge and resources with the participants throughout the week!
Greg Bullock, TheraSpecs
Michael Goodman, Revenue Kinetics, LLC
Ben Smith, Xcellerate Biomedical Technologies
Milene Kibler, 2020 Big Pitch winner and founder of Sinaz Designs
Rick Stoddard, Indecomm Digital
Liz Warren, South Mountain Community College Storytelling Institute
Kevin Youngblood, Youngblood Works
Sebastian Mayer, Mayer Project 7 Agency
Mentors & Pitch Coaches
Anthony Bajoras, Cancer Fund
Aaron Bare, Serial Entrepreneur
Bruce McHenry, Community Entrepreneurship Center at South Mountain Community College
Russ Yelton, Yelton and Associates
Tina Waddington, Phoenix Committee on Foreign Relations
Michelle Howard, Paraslice
Lois Epps, SCORE Mentor
Jim Newman, SCORE Mentor
Jerry Vandyke, SCORE Mentor
Arthur Gajewski, SCORE Mentor
Bill Morgan, SCORE Mentor
Steve Engelhardt, SCORE Mentor
Michael Goodman, Revenue Kinetics, LLC
David Richardson, BSE, PSM, bioSyntagma
Dorine Rivers, PhD, Alpha 81 Inc.
Tom Miller, Serial Entrepreneur
Jim Zemezonak, Boulders Realty Advisors
Tom Zender, CEO Mentor & Business Coach