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Tom Tom Festival's pitch night tugs at heartstrings — and purse strings

Coffins constructed out of recycled coffee grounds, an artificial intelligence-powered stock trading platform built by a 14-year-old, a disposable cup that can detect date-rape drugs — the ingenuity of 11 aspiring entrepreneurs tugged on the heartstrings and purse strings of the hundreds gathered for Wednesday’s Crowdfunded Pitch Night.

Held in the Irving Theater inside the CODE Building on Charlottesville’s Downtown Mall, the pitch night kicked off the first night of the city’s annual Tom Tom Festival, a showcase of Charlottesville’s community of enterprising creatives, business leaders, advocates and activists. The pitch night provides a platform for a handful of local entrepreneurs to — in three minutes — win over the crowd and garner as many as possible votes from the audience, with each vote counting as a $10 donation to the startup. The night concluded with the announcement of the “top vote-getter” and grand prize winner, chosen by a panel of three judges, one of whom was last year’s winner Janasha Bradford of Mahogany and Friends, a book series and multimedia company focused on addressing the financial literacy gap among children.

“This is one of the longest standing events of the whole festival, and it’s one of my favorites because the air in the room is just electric,” festival founder Paul Beyer told The Daily Progress on Wednesday night. “Everyone is there to support and uplift their friends and their family as they make these big pitches.”

“It’s always super inspiring and is a testament to just the small business entrepreneurial spirit, because it’s not easy and it takes a lot of risks,” he added. “It’s really cool when the community can come be part of supporting someone when they make that leap.”

More than $6,000 was raised in total by private donations for the 11 entrepreneurs who took the stage Wednesday, though those funds were not all raised in a single night. Community members have been able to donate to a specific entrepreneur since April 4, when Tom Tom announced this year’s contestants. Some $5,000 was awarded by the Community Investment Collaborative, a local, nonprofit business coalition and longtime partner of Tom Tom, to the pitch night’s grand prize winner: Beza Bisrat of Ethiopian Delights.

“It was an honor to pitch alongside so many incredible and impactful businesses,” Bisrat told The Daily Progress after winning. “It means so much to me that the judges and community members believed in me and my vision. My business was created out of a need that I saw. Being recognized as the winner is a huge sign of trust, and it drives me to address those needs in Charlottesville.”

As an Ethiopian American, Bisrat grew up surrounded by the East African country’s culture and cuisine. But, when she moved from Washington, D.C., to Charlottesville to attend the University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business, the region’s lack of Ethiopian cuisine came both as a surprise and disappointment.

“I’m Ethiopian, and I’m proud of my heritage,” Bisrat said during her pitch. “My culture is seeing my grandmother across the table, hearing laughter echo through our home and inhaling the aroma of onions and peppers and garlic.”

Charlottesville and Central Virginia is an Ethiopian food desert, and Bisrat is launching Ethiopian Delights to fix that. Her business lets customers purchase authentic, packaged Ethiopian meals that are delivered straight to their door. The online service is currently only accepting preorders for misir wot, a red lentil stew based on a Bisrat family recipe, but the young entrepreneur plans to grow her product line with her earnings from the pitch night.

“I’ll be in stores, in farmers markets, in person and online — you’ll be sick of me,” said Bisrat. “I will continue mentoring entrepreneurs as I’ve been mentored, and I will weave my culture into the fabric of Charlottesville.”

The buildup to Bisrat and her fellow entrepreneurs’ three-minutes in the spotlight Wednesday night began months ago when the 11 contestants were chosen from more than 30 applicants, according to Stephen Davis, president of the Community Investment Collaborative. Davis told The Daily Progress that a group of individuals from his organization in conjunction with representatives from Tom Tom selected the final contestants, looking for applications representing “a good cross-section of the community.”

The entrepreneur whose testimony garnered a majority of the crowd’s generosity was Bennett Slosman, with Angel Detection Solutions. His product, a clear, disposable cup with a strip circling the base that changes color to alert the drinker to the presence of a date-rape drug in the beverage, was inspired by a traumatic experience his girlfriend survived, two days before they met, after her drink was spiked at a party.

The cup is able to successfully detect common date-rape drugs such as GHB, Rohypnol and ketamine. When one of those substances is present in the cup, the yellow band circling it turns red in a matter of seconds. Though Slosman is still in the research-and-development phase, he told the packed theater Wednesday that his company already has a contract with a chapter of the Pi Kappa Alpha fraternity at the University of Richmond for 25,600 cups, with plans to bring the cup to more than 200 chapters across the country.

“Imagine you’re a freshman at a frat party,” Slosman pitched. “What are you going to do if someone fine comes up and offers you a drink? Are you going to set up a makeshift chemistry lab and wait before drinking for five minutes, and are you going to do it consistently throughout the night even while drinking?”

There are more than 46,000 reported cases of drug-related sexual assault each year, Slosman said; it’s been a decadeslong problem, and his innovation is part of the solution.

Angel Detection Solutions’ was not the only pitch Wednesday that touched on more solemn matters. University of Virginia philosophy professor Talbot Brewer’s Virginia Prison Birth Project was among one of the less lighthearted pitches.

Ironically, Jen Fleisher’s coffin business provided some comic relief.

Fleisher is the owner of Coffeen Co., which builds affordable, biodegradable coffins made of coffee ground waste, or “coffeens.”

“Coffeens are the perfect product to start the conversation about end-of-life planning,” she told the crowd.

Other startups pitched Wednesday include Petrichor, a recycled clothing network; Heart & Soul Fitness; the BOBO Collective, a wholesale brokerage that exclusively sources for, produces and sells Black-owned, packaged goods; Fiori Glo Skincare; Upon A Tea; Live Now, a mobile, multicamera live streaming service; and BrokerBotics, an AI-powered platform for stock trading.

While not all of the entrepreneurs may have received as much financial support as they would have liked Wednesday, the chance to build a network and have their voices heard in the community will nevertheless be beneficial, said Davis.

“We’ve had folks who found investors in this room,” he said. “All of those things are part of this event. The grand prize winner and the prizes that you all vote on are a big part of what draws us all here, but ultimately, we want all of these businesses to be successful and then figure out how they can make the impact that they’re seeking.”

On Thursday, community members had an opportunity to take a deeper dive into the challenges and opportunities for entrepreneurs in the area with seminars, workshops and networking events. Some of Wednesday night’s contestants also participated in these talks, such as Ahan Dalal, the teenager who founded BrokerBotics with his father.

The pitch night, however, continues to be one of the festival’s most popular events, as evidenced by the 200-plus people in attendance.

“I think a pitch night like this really speaks to the whole spirit of Tom Tom from its inception,” said Beyer. “Then, it also speaks to what we’re trying to accomplish with the festival overall, which is to bring people together and do cool things.”

Source: www.dailyprogress.com

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