Boot camp for entrepreneurs boosts minority businesses in Detroit

David Blaszkiewicz, president and CEO, Invest Detroit; Katy Locker, program director/Detroit, Knight Foundation; and Rodrick T. Miller president and CEO, Detroit Economic Growth Corp., present awards to winning contestants. Photos courtesy Detroit Economic Growth Corp. 

Ruth Bell was so nervous about pitching Chugga’s, her wholesale bread-baking company, she had to be shoved into the room where some of Detroit’s power brokers—people with the venture capital she needs to grow her business—waited to hear her presentation last week. Yet, moments later, she had the crowd chanting for her Monkey Bread, pull-apart, braided loaves that are free of artificial ingredients and come in flavors such as Rum Raisin and Zesty Lemon.

“What time is it?” she repeatedly asked the audience of about 100 people, including a panel of judges that had come to award $20,000 in seed money. “It’s Monkey Bread time!” they responded. (Monkey Bread, for those not in the know, is a Southern delicacy named after the fruit of the African baobab tree.)

Bell walked out a few hours later with a $5,000 check that she’ll use for new packaging. She said she is working on contracts with Meijer, a major retail chain in the Midwest, and with Whole Foods, along with a distributor.

“I’m overwhelmed,” said Bell, following a friend who carried the oversized, sweepstakes-style check.She looked a bit dazed at her good fortune.

A few days later, Eddie Carrington walked a different stage about 5 miles away in downtown Detroit, his pitch polished to a high shine as he explained how his startup, WarrantyNinja, will simplify the way consumers register their products and help companies keep a better database of their customers. The company took the grand prize of $20,000, beating out 13 other early-stage, tech-based companies that participated in [email protected] April 13-15, three days of entrepreneurial boot camps and competitions intended to stimulate and inspire minority-owned business ventures in Detroit and the region.

Dozens of small companies vied for a total of $100,000 in prize money over the three days, and perhaps more important, received exposure to venture capitalists and other investors. Morgan Stanley underwrote the event. Knight Foundation and the New Economy Initiative provided additional support, and Invest Detroit and Detroit Economic Growth Corp. hosted.

[email protected] grew out of PowerMoves.NOLA in New Orleans last year, a series of pitch competitions that awarded $300,000 in prize money and resulted in over $11 million in new investment in minority-owned businesses, said Dave Blaskiewicz, president of Invest Detroit. Besides stimulating new investment in Detroit, [email protected] also sought to interest outside businesses in locating in the Motor City.

“There’s a strong black business class in Detroit, and maybe other businesses will look at Detroit as a place for expansion,” he said.

[email protected] included two “power pitch” competitions, including the “PowerUp Boot Camp” that Carrington and his business partner, Jerry Rucker, took part in. Over six weeks of webinars, they received mentorship services and help formulating their pitch. The other pitch competition focused on existing companies in the region. GAPro, a Detroit-area company that offers a cloud-based insurance verification system, won $40,000 in that event.

“The whole PowerMoves event has been phenomenal,” said Carrington, who conceived his business idea over golf with Rucker. “We never thought we could explain the concept in three minutes. They did a great job of staying on us.”

 Added Rucker, “They challenged us to become better.”

Carrington said they’ll use the prize to build out the WarrantyNinja apps for consumers and clients, places like Best Buy and other retailers. For consumers, a snapshot of the product barcode is all it will take to register their product, information businesses can use to track purchases and to offer coupons and extended warranties. The idea seems logical enough, but Carrington knows it will take a lot of capital to take off.

The April 13 Knight Foundation-sponsored event, “Pitches, Plans & Growth – A Detroit Small Business Boot Camp,” which had Ruth Bell vying against seven other small companies, was an add-on to [email protected], but by no means an afterthought. It was a way of getting outside of Detroit’s high-growth areas to assist people with smaller businesses in finding funding and articulating their growth strategies.

Rodrick Miller, the former director of PowerMoves.NOLA and now president and CEO of the Detroit Economic Growth Corp., said conversations with Detroit’s core business leaders pointed them toward the neighborhoods, where stores and companies can make a serious impact on the community by employing locals and providing much needed services.

“It’s more realistic to grow these smaller companies into larger companies,” said Miller, who came to Detroit just a few months ago. “These companies face hurdles – access to capital, access to the marketplace. This will provide them with access to the people who can fund them.”

 Along with Bell, a mobile gaming app company, Weyn LLC, won $5,000 that will help it develop online games that feature minority characters. The $10,000 People’s Choice Award went to Good Cakes and Bakes, an organic bakery whose owner told the crowd she wants to offer organic ice cream and hire additional staff.

The competitors spent the morning learning how to pitch their ideas to grab the interest of a panel of judges and other folks who heard about the competition and came by to offer their votes. Startups Illustrated provided the tutelage.

Those few hours may mean the difference between success and failure.

 “It gave me more confidence,” said Bell. “They told me to turn nervousness into energy, that these are butterflies that you need to turn around into something positive. Nobody wants to get in front of a crowd. I feel like I can now go in front of another crowd of people and remember to keep it fun. That’s what kept me going.”

Julie Edgar is a Detroit-based freelancer.

Ruth Bell

Ruth Bell, of Chuggas wholesale bakery.