Women Entrepreneurs Compete For Cash In ‘Shark Tank’-Style Competition

By Frank Witsil Detroit Free Press

WWR Article Summary (tl;dr) A dozen women-owned companies seeking investment for their business ideas and startups are vying for a slice of the $50,000 prize money in a pitch competition at Ford's headquarters in Dearborn.

Detroit Free Press

The "Shark Tank"-style competition -- dubbed EmpowerHER -- is a project run by the Michigan Women's Foundation and underwritten by the Ford Motor Co. Fund, which put up the prize money and an additional $90,000 for entrepreneur workshops and training.

Among some of the entities seeking prize money: An enterprise that makes jams and sauces out of damaged produce, a nonprofit group that teaches women to weld, and a Highland Park company that gives tours in Model T and Model A Fords.

"There's a real sistership -- sisterhood -- among the people in the competition," said Lisa Stolarski, 49, of Antique Touring, the company that plans to offer classic car tours. "It feels like being in a pool of fresh water with a group of women who are all swimming in the same direction as you."

The contest focuses on majority women-owned companies, organizers said, because, compared to men, women often start their companies with less capital, more limited access to investment and are paid 80 cents to the dollar.

"I believe that businesses can solve important social problems," said Carolyn Cassin, CEO of the Michigan Women's Foundation, who proposed the pilot project to the Ford fund about 18 months ago. "We wanted to try to see if there were social entrepreneurs here in southeast Michigan and throughout the state to solve an important problem in their community, neighborhood with a business proposition."

The competition started with an introductory gathering in the summer of 2017 at the University of Detroit Mercy for women running and seeking to start businesses, Cassin said. It was followed by an invitation to compete for financial investment with a two-page proposal for an enterprise. That list was winnowed to about 30, and then a dozen, finalists.

The finalists -- all from metro Detroit, except one from East Lansing -- will pitch their ideas at 6 p.m. Wednesday in front of a panel of judges, that include Pamela Alexander, the director of community development for the Ford Motor Co. Fund; Richard Beedo, the founder of MacBeedon Group; Susan Diehl, a partner at Trinitas Advisors; and Susan Gordon, a director at Mission Throttle.

"You can have a great idea as to how to solve a problem, but you have to put the business structure underneath it," Cassin said. "A lot of the women needed a lot of help, a lot of support, so we put together classes and a mentorship program."

Cassin said the hope is that the prize money -- awards range from $25,000 to $1,000 -- will help the best ideas flourish as enterprises. The competition also, she said, is expected to generate attention from investors and firms that will be interested in the enterprises.

"I think the community is going to benefit," Cassin added. "It's not just another business plan, pitch competition. These businesses have to lead with the concept that there is a social problem that they are trying to solve."

Finalists Erin Rose and Kayla Schindler of Every Two Minutes, a company that creates tools to help address sexual violence and misconduct, in Huntington Woods.

Jennifer Morgan of Branches and Bridges, a service to provide the elderly with daytime activities and health monitoring, in Warren.

Lisa Stolarski of Antique Touring, a company to give tours of historical sites in Model T and Model A Fords, in Highland Park.

Kimberly Watts of Purnell Provisions -- an enterprise that plans to use damaged produce to create jams, jellies, sauces, and soups -- in Huntington Woods.

Alecia Gabriel, Chinonye Akunne, Deirdre Roberson of Motor City STEAM -- a learning center for students interested in science, technology, engineering, arts, mathematics -- in Detroit.

Kimberly Buffington of Eden Urban Farms, an enterprise for indoor farming of fresh foods, in Detroit. Michelle Smart of Bags To Butterflies, L3C -- a company aimed at reducing female recidivism with employment and training opportunities -- in Oak Park.

Samantha Farr of Women Who Weld, a nonprofit organization that teaches women how to weld and find employment in the welding industry, in Detroit.

Deanna Wojcik of the Mushroom Factory, an urban mushroom farm to sell to restaurants and markets, in Detroit. Joanne Ewald of Mend on the Move, a nonprofit enterprise that employs women who are survivors of abuse and addiction, in West Bloomfield.

Alexa Jones of TheraB Medical Products -- a startup selling the SnugLit, a wearable product that helps infants breastfeed -- in East Lansing

Ashlee Trempus of SignOn, a company that provides job opportunities to people with hearing loss using sign language, in Grosse Pointe Farms.

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