Meet The Women-Led Businesses That Swept The CONNECT ALL Pitch Contest

Natallie Rocha
The San Diego Union-Tribune

WWR Article Summary (tl;dr)
As Natallie Rocha reports, “Four women-owned businesses swept the fifth CONNECT ALL at the Jacobs Center Union Bank Start-Up Pitch Competition. The winning pitches were all delivered by female business owners who embody the accelerator program’s effort to elevate San Diego’s underrepresented entrepreneurs.”

San Diego

CONNECT ALL at the Jacobs Center is an accelerator program that supports low- to moderate-income and diversity-focused businesses in San Diego. It provides mentorship and workshops to startups and it is supported by the city of San Diego, the Jacobs Center for Neighborhood Innovation and CONNECT w/ San Diego Venture Group.

Union Bank funded $26,000 in grants, which is the largest amount that’s been awarded since the program’s inception in 2018. The increase in funding also provided $1,000 to the businesses that did not place in the top four of the competition.

This year’s pitch contest consisted of nine teams that presented their five-minute video pitch earlier this month. Leading up to the competition, the cohort had 10 companies participating in the free, four-month accelerator.

Alex Waters, director of economic development at the Jacobs Center, led the cohort and served as a mentor to business owners along the way. He said that while they’ve always had a large number of women founders come through the program, this year more than half of the cohort was led by women entrepreneurs.

“It’s consistent with a trend we’re seeing across all entrepreneurship, where there’s more opportunities, and a lot of women are taking advantage of having those opportunities to build their business,” Waters said.
CONNECT ALL offers its services for free and to date, the accelerator has launched 62 small businesses through the program.

Here are the four winners from this year’s pitch competition and their thoughts on how the program has helped their business:

Jaclyn Sarnese, elevatED Classrooms
Jaclyn Sarnese, 31, CEO of elevatED Classrooms won first prize at the pitch competition and took home $10,000.
Her startup provides specialized educational and professional development services to K-12 schools, districts and other youth-serving organizations. After teaching high school biology, earning her master’s in education and working in education policy, she saw a disconnect between national policies and what’s going on in the classroom.

For example, she said a lot of elementary schools don’t have specialty teachers for subjects like science, so a general education teacher must juggle multiple subjects. Sarnese explained that her venture supports teachers in a way that leverages their strengths and limited resources to teach different lessons with more impact.

Since starting elevatED Classrooms in January 2020, Sarnese has collaborated mainly with schools in South County. Her company has brought in more than $100,000 in revenue and she projects more growth in the future.

Being part of the CONNECT ALL cohort helped her set realistic goals and tackle them each week in an efficient manner. She added that having Waters as a mentor helped her embrace her ambition as a female business owner while also understanding that she doesn’t have to be perfect every step of the way.

“He helped me realize that if there are some tasks that don’t get completed in a month that don’t ultimately feed into my goals that I’m setting for myself, it’s OK to leave them,” Sarnese said.

Now, with the first prize funding under her belt, Sarnese is looking to expand the reach of her venture by hiring trainers to deliver the coaching sessions to more clients.

Michelle DeJohnette, Village Kids Early Childhood Community
Michelle DeJohnette, founder of Village Kids Early Childhood Community took second place and won $5,000 at the pitch contest.

She’s been in business for 24 years providing child care in the community where she grew up in Southeastern San Diego. DeJohnette sees her business as a place offering early childhood education and resources for parents.

DeJohnette has a bachelor’s and master’s degree in early education and human development, and a doctorate in education.
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She identified that prior to 2020 there was already a shortage of care for young children in San Diego. The pandemic only made it worse as more child care centers and family child care homes closed.

“My solution is to expand an already established community business to increase the number of quality child care spaces for young children and provide equitable early learning for children and families with lower incomes,” DeJohnette said in her recorded pitch video.

“ConnectAll at the Jacobs Center taught me that it is imperative to be aware of my financial standing,” DeJohnette said in an email. “Another thing I will carry with me is the importance of relationship building. Whether that is with other entrepreneurs or networking with people in positions that can support your business. I think the most valuable thing about being a member of ConnectAll is that once you’re in, you’re connected forever.”

In her pitch video, she said that the next phase of growth for her business includes opening a new facility and hiring staff.

Soely Sanchez, Braid Street
Soely Sanchez, founder of Braid Street was awarded third place, the Audience Choice award and $2,500 at the pitch contest.

Her small business provides braiding, protective hairstyling and hair care courses for the Afro-mixed population in San Diego. Additionally, she said that creating a space that also facilitates conversations on mental health and wellness is central to her business.

“I take anywhere from 30 minutes to seven hours and so in that time, I knew that I wanted to enjoy what I was doing and braiding and doing hair, it can get mundane,” she said. “But what makes it different is how I’m able to pour into my client and how they’re able to pour into me. So I really just started having and focusing on intentional conversations. Whether that is loving yourself through meditating or loving yourself by creating a new hair routine for yourself every week.”

The 34-year-old entrepreneur and Marine Corps veteran started her business in July 2019. Since getting plugged into the services at the Jacobs Center, she recently started attending cosmetology school to get her license per the recommendation of a CONNECT ALL financial adviser who said it would benefit the professionalism of her brand.

Sanchez said that being part of the cohort provided her networking opportunities and consistent accountability as other women entrepreneurs worked to grow their businesses alongside her.

“Knowing that I have other entrepreneurs in the program, that were helping me, and that we’re also on the same path … it didn’t seem like I was alone and it could be a pretty lonely road as an entrepreneur,” Sanchez said.

Next up for her is expanding her presence on social media and investing in equipment to help her produce high-quality hair tutorial videos for paying members. She also wants to work toward launching free, educational community events.

Amaya Ford, Mya’s Catering
Amaya Ford, 28, founder of Mya’s Catering won fourth place and a $1,500 grant.

Ford, a native San Diegan, started her e-commerce catering business in 2018 and she bakes a variety of cookies and cakes. Not only did she want to offer the nostalgia of homemade sweets, but she also wanted to set an example for her daughter in her work.

She wasn’t happy at her previous job at a nonprofit, so she decided to go all-in on her catering business last year.
“I would kind of dabble in it here and there, but I realized comparing the two I’d rather be elbow deep in peach cobbler dough than to be arguing with employees,” Ford said. “So to me, it made sense to take that leap of faith and focus on my business.”

Supporting her family and creating something that other families can share is central to her business. Her recipes are either original or inherited family traditions. Two of her top-selling cookies — Ny Ny’s Chocolate Chip Cookie and GG’S Cookie — are both named after family members.

Ford has a bachelor’s degree in culinary arts and a master’s in restaurant and hospitality management. For her, the baking side of the business was easy, but learning the ins and outs of finance was where CONNECT ALL came in. She said that gaining financial literacy and connections to other entrepreneurs were some of her biggest takeaways from the program.

With the experience and grant money she gained from CONNECT ALL, Ford is shifting her focus to elevating her brand on social media and selling her products wholesale to local coffee shops, bakeries or hotels.

The program is accepting applications for its next cohort.

©2022 The San Diego Union-Tribune. Visit Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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