Nonprofits and Small Business & Startups

Pitch competition sends six new businesses on their way

Michigan Women’s Foundation pumps $35K into woman-owned firms.

October 23, 2015
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From left are Judy Welch, executive director of MWF West Michigan, Lifestyle category winners Sarah Rickerd, Julie Fox and Nikki Thompson Frazier, and Carolyn Bloodworth of sponsor Consumers Energy. Courtesy Reflections by Rohne

When Nikki Thompson Frazier was approached about participating in the Michigan Women’s Foundation’s Entrepreneur-You Plan & Pitch competition, it turned out to be just the push she needed.

The former executive director of nonprofit Christmas Charities Year Round Inc., Frazier was contemplating a new career after relocating to East Lansing with her husband, Terry. A lifelong cook, Frazier was in the process of conceptualizing Sweet Encounter, a gourmet, gluten-free, vegan-friendly bakery — a seed that was planted when her two young daughters were diagnosed with seven food allergies.

Frazier still was debating whether to move forward with the concept when she got a message from Judy Welch, executive director for the West Michigan chapter of the Michigan Women’s Foundation.

Frazier had connected with Welch at an event in East Lansing earlier in the year, so when the time came for MWF to begin accepting applications for its first Entrepreneur-You Plan & Pitch competition in Grand Rapids, Welch reached out to the future entrepreneur and invited her to submit a concept paper.

“It was an opportunity to put my feet in the fire,” Frazier said.

The competition, sponsored by Consumers Energy Foundation, is an extension of an event that has been held in southeast Michigan since 2012, inviting women entrepreneurs to compete for a chance to win up to $10,000 to help fund their businesses.

From the applicants, 10 finalists were chosen — five in the Lifestyle category and five in the Growth category — to present their final pitches before a panel of judges Oct. 16 at Grand Valley State University’s William L. Seidman Center.

Frazier’s passion for baking was evident from the start of her pitch, and she further impressed the panel with her solid business plan. It culminated in Frazier taking home the $10,000 first-place prize in the Lifestyle category — and a better sense of where to go next.

Throughout the competition process, Frazier got a crash course in what it was like to start a new business from scratch, from financing and planning to realization. Though she has experience in running a nonprofit, she said she gained a great deal of insight through the phases of the competition and working with her assigned coach.

“I think when you’re building from the ground up, there’s a whole lot of little pieces,” Frazier said. “I have to make sure I pay attention to the details in the beginning and lay a firm foundation, and that’s what I’m trying to do now.”

Sweet Encounter had a soft opening last month, with Frazier taking online and local orders from her home in East Lansing. She will use her winnings from the competition to help secure a storefront in Lansing, with plans to open by August 2016.

Taking the $5,000 second-place award in the Lifestyle category was Julie Fox, founder and owner of gluten-free and allergen-friendly Free Love Bakery LLC in Kalamazoo. The $2,500 third-place winnings went to Sarah Rickerd, owner of Grand Rapids-based Carry Your Heart Jewelry & Gifts, a producer of memorial jewelry specialized in meeting the needs of bereaved parents.

Contestant Evelyn Ritter was finishing up her senior year at Hope College when she was approached by one of her professors, Graham Peaslee, with an opportunity.

That opportunity turned out to be UMP Analytical, a chemical testing company that aims to transform the way perfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS, are tested by connecting the underutilized instruments of academia with the needs of the industry. Ritter, 22, stepped into the role of managing director, alongside Chief Technical Officer Peaslee and Chief Strategy Officer Peter Boumgarden, a Hope business professor.

Though Ritter’s background in business was limited, she entered the competition to secure further funding and came away with the Growth category’s $10,000 grand prize.

“(The competition) really helped me work on my leadership,” Ritter said. “I think between pitching and having to talk to people, and from the conversations that have resulted, it really pushed me in that direction and challenged me in my willingness and ability to make decisions on the fly.”

Ritter said she and her team currently are in the process of wrapping up the scientific procedure of UMP Analytical, making sure the science is sound, and developing customer relationships. Within six months, the firm hopes to have an established minimum viable product to begin testing.

UMP Analytical’s winnings will be used to support traveling to conferences and finding potential customers to support and grow the business. Within a few months, Ritter expects to hear if UMP Analytical will be able to obtain a grant from the Society of Thoracic Radiology that would help further expansion.

“I’m really lucky to be surrounded by great advisors and co-workers, and I expect our company to continue growing, to continue to build our network of universities,” Ritter said.

“(The competition) was a lot of hard work. I spent hours practicing the pitch. I had to make sure it was very well put together, but it was a fun experience and well worth it.”

Briauna Taylor, director of business development for Fluition LLC, a medical device design and supply company that redesigned a sit-to-stand device for bedridden patients, took home the second-place prize in the Growth category. Valerie Obenchain, CEO of Advanced Interactive Response Systems LLC, which produces safety products to monitor oxygen supply, took third.

In the wake of its inaugural Plan & Pitch competition in Grand Rapids, the Michigan Women’s Foundation announced plans to expand the event to two more cities. Kalamazoo and Lansing will host competitions next year, in addition to the events in Grand Rapids and Detroit.

“One opportunity for this amazing Plan & Pitch operation is to allow us to build our ecosystem of women entrepreneurs,” Welch said. “We’ve been doing this for the last four years in Detroit and invested in 21 companies through the Pitch & Plan competitions, and now we’ve just invested in our first six (in Grand Rapids).”

Carolyn Bloodworth, Consumers Energy’s director of corporate giving, said the foundation was pleased to support a program in the heart of Consumers’ service territory. She was impressed by the entrepreneurs and said she looks forward to expanding the competition next year.

“I think what I liked the most was the passion and the commitment and the dedication that was existent with every single participant,” Bloodworth said. “They had a lot of failures along the way, but that didn’t stop them; they kept going, and that’s what it takes. I think that is a reflection of who we are as a state. We’re a comeback state and (these women) were very dedicated to their businesses, and I’m really pleased to see how far they’ve come.”

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