From holistic dog-grooming to administrative/professional organizing services and from hot sauces to hair products, Montclair students, alumni and other enterprising entrepreneurs recently made their sales pitches, hoping to procure funding for their startups.
A total of $25,000 was up for grabs during the 9th Annual Feliciano Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation’s Pitch Competition at the Feliciano School of Business. A five-member panel of judges listened to entrepreneurs as they made their best Shark Tank-style pitches on Pitch Day 2023. Each entrepreneur had only five minutes to make their case and another five minutes to answer questions. The judges had the discretion to award one of 11 business owners the entire prize money or divvy it up among several winners.
“We’re fortunate to have the New Jersey Small Business Development Centers as our sponsor for this pitch competition,” said Elizabeth Rich, co-director of the Feliciano Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation. “We also partnered with Len Harac of Harac Consulting and Sue Hollenberg, Duncan Miller and Ryan Moore of Montclair Film. These folks really helped train our pitch participants on the key ingredients for the pitch, like profit projections and compelling storytelling – we’re so grateful for their expertise.” This was the first in-person pitch event since before the pandemic in 2019. The event was not held in 2022.
All 11 of the pitch participants graduated from the Ignite Entrepreneurs @ MSU program. Ignite, a 20-week program that runs twice a year, was created following the COVID-19 pandemic, as a way to help current or existing entrepreneurs, both on campus and in the community, as they launch or grow their businesses. The program consists of self-paced learning through on-demand, virtual content, as well as expert and faculty mentorship, in-person events and workshops and an opportunity to pitch for seed funding. Ignite is free to Montclair students and costs community members only $199.
Before announcing the recipients of the seed funding, Len Harac, president of Harac Consulting and an Ignite Entrepreneurs mentor, told the pitch participants that he believed all 11 entrepreneurs would succeed but that ultimately, the panel chose “the businesses we thought the money would most help.”
“Everybody did a great job,” he said. “Speaking for my fellow judges, we were quite impressed, and you all should be very proud of yourselves.”
Ultimately, five businesses received funding. Montclair alumna Annalyce D’Agostino ’17 was the big winner; she was awarded $8,000 for her business, Focus Posters. The business allows children and their parents to design posters with the child’s likeness using customizable templates with the goal of empowering them to complete routine tasks. The posters have been piloted with children being treated at Hassenfeld Children’s Hospital at NYU Langone as a way to help them remember the routine of taking their medications, for example.
“We’re doing what should have been done a long time ago,” D’Agostino, CEO and co-founder, said in her pitch. “We’re reimagining routine. Any child can benefit from the supportive focus. Many of them already use visual supports as the only interventions.”
Focus Posters, which launches this summer, is a B2B model, with an initial emphasis on health. “Medical experiences can be scary and overwhelming, especially for children,” said D’Agostino, who earned a bachelor’s in Family Science and Human Development. “Studies show that when kids know what to expect, their anxiety reduces dramatically. Visual supports are already used in health care, but we’re redefining them. Focus Posters will help children see themselves, their procedures and their health routines in a calming, approachable way.”
On the business side, she explained, health-care professionals will have access via a portal to “templates to facilitate understanding and communication on a child’s healing journey. We envision this to be a major breakthrough in pediatric patient education. We talked with former child patients and parents, pediatricians, social workers, nurses, child life specialists and patient educators, all of whom have a unique use for Focus Posters.”
In her closing, D’Agostino told the panel of judges: “We ask for your support as we work step by step to empower children in their health and in life, one poster at a time.”
While D’Agostino didn’t get the full $20,000 she was seeking, she said the money will help propel Focus Posters and its mission forward. It was her first time pitching, giving her confidence to pursue her business. “I’m thrilled,” she said after her win. “We will use the money to elevate the posters and to create medically accurate health illustrations for hospitals.”
Sienna Grant Mitsak, a senior in Visual Arts with a minor in Entrepreneurship, received $5,000 for her Flourish by Sage, a naturally derived, sustainable hair products business. Mitsak shared her story of creating her brand after embarking on her own natural hair journey. The company CEO and founder said she struggled to find products that worked for her, surveyed 100 people and found that 94% of them also were unhappy with current products on the market and knew she could fill that niche. Today, she sells her products in hair salons and her business, which launched during the COVID-19 pandemic, has earned $50,000 since 2021.
Mitsak was seeking $20,000 to work with a co-packager and for biodegradable packaging for her hair soufflés, as well as for social media and marketing assistance. Afterward, Mitsak said she was happy with her award.
“It feels amazing,” she said, adding that the cash infusion means “they believe in the brand. It will help Sage get to the next level of entrepreneurship and flourish.”
Kimberlyn Xavier Oliveira, owner of Brazilian Babe Hot Sauce, also won $5,000 after her pitch. She got into the hot sauce business after her favorite Scotch bonnet hot sauce was discontinued. When she couldn’t find a satisfactory replacement, with the right mix of fruitiness and spicy heat, she got into her kitchen and started experimenting. “Those experiments spiraled into Brazilian Babe Hot Sauce,” she said. The solopreneur now produces small-batch, all natural, preservative-free hot sauces.
She was seeking $9,800 in funding to move beyond her solo operation and work with a co-packager to process, package and label products and for marketing.
Oliveira, who attended Montclair’s School of Communication and Media and applied for the Ignite program after participating in the accelerated MBA program, said after her award: “I’ve been waiting for months to move forward to co-packaging. I’m very, very grateful.”
Cynthia Sepulveda, owner of Flaco Coquito, also received $5,000 for her non-alcoholic coquito-infused tea. While she saw tremendous success selling coquito (a Puerto Rican eggnog-type beverage) traditionally most popular around Christmas, Sepulveda told the judges that she decided to pivot her business while participating in the Ignite Entrepreneurs program. She’d seen the growth in non-alcoholic beverages due in large part to more health-conscious consumers, particularly millennials and Gen Zers. “Fifty percent of Americans, according to a recent study, are switching from alcoholic beverages to non-alcoholic beverages,” Sepulveda said. “Introducing a new product, coquito-infused té (tea).”
Flaco Coquito is vegan, non-GMO, sustainable and plant-based, Sepulveda said. It’s also high in antioxidants, low in sugar and environmentally friendly, she said. With plans to test the market with a pop-up shop on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, Sepulveda was seeking $25,000 to help pay for rent, equipment, furniture, liability insurance, marketing and more. The $5,000 will help.
Montclair sophomore Anacia Sessoms, CEO and founder of Enchantment of Gardens, a creative sustainable brand that upcycles textiles into arty, creative fashion, received $2,000. With a goal of decreasing textile waste, Sessoms creates one-of-a-kind fashion for customers.
“My mission is to create a connection between our customers, where they can explore their fashion while identifying with a piece that’s only meant for them,” she explained. “We are living artworks and we are our own canvases; through fashion we can feel safe, secure and supported.”
Other judges included Jason Frasca, co-director of the MIX Lab and co-founder of Emergent Futures Lab; Arielle Loren, CEO and founder of 100K Incubator; and Okey Okuzu, Montclair adjunct management professor and founder and CEO of InStrat Global Health Solutions.
While some participants walked away with no money, judge Kelly Brozyna, CEO and state director of NJSBDC, echoed Harac’s remarks, and urged entrepreneurs to take advantage of no-cost services provided by the organization’s network.
“Everybody’s presentations were phenomenal,” she said.
To learn more about the programs offered by the Feliciano Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation, visit the Feliciano Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation.