As mentioned in a blog post a few weeks ago, Carolina Small Business Development Fund (CSBDF) and the Innovation and Entrepreneurship Center was invited by the Wake County government, the City of Raleigh, United Way of the Greater Triangle, and Southeast Raleigh Promise, to form a partnership to conduct the first Southeast (SE) Raleigh Innovation Challenge. The purpose of the Challenge was to provide funds for innovative ideas that could help bring economic development and overall community improvement to the SE Raleigh neighborhood. While Raleigh’s economy as a whole is considered strong, the SE Raleigh area is highly distressed with low education levels, high unemployment, and high poverty. The core organizing partners operated on the belief that the community members themselves are the best source for ideas to overcome and solve these economic challenges. As such, the Innovation Challenge worked to solicit ideas from people within the SE Raleigh neighborhood to develop solutions for their most pressing challenges.
The planning for the Innovation Challenge began in May 2017, with the core partners previously mentioned and other key community partners. This group became known as the “co-design team,” and was tasked with orchestrating the entire challenge, from designing the application and training, to organizing the final pitch event and marketing. The total amount of funding allocated for this challenge was $120,000. Applicants included community residents, small businesses, nonprofits, faith-based groups, youth and other organizations within the neighborhood. Each applicant presented their innovative idea for solving economic and social issues within their southeast Raleigh community. Participants would be selected to continue on to a six-week accelerator program, and then do a final pitch of their ideas to win a portion of the funds.
The Innovation Challenge kick-off event was held on July 22, 2017. Applications submitted by this date were able to compete for a People’s Choice Award. Over 50 applicants gave one minute presentations at Shaw University before members of the community. It was very exciting to hear and see all of the pitches presented. The audience was tasked with selecting a winner (via phone text message vote) for the Challenge Kick-off People’s Choice Award, which was won by the Garner Road YMCA.
By the final deadline of July 28, 2017, a total of 53 applications had been received. Twenty-five were selected to go to the next round and participate in the six-week accelerator program to help them prepare for final applications and presentations. The accelerator program consisted of six two-hour sessions which took place over a two-month period. This part of the challenge, led and managed by CSBDF, proved to be a very rewarding experience based on feedback from the participants. Key topics included proto-typing, lean canvas, financial management, understanding their sources of funds, and the art of the pitch. As a result of this training, many applicants changed or revised their business models and implemented the concepts they learned.
Ten finalists were selected to make their final pitch to receive monetary awards. Five awardees would receive a Seed Capital Award in the amount of $3500 each. Five other finalists would be selected compete for higher monetary award amounts in the final pitch competition.
At the final pitch event in October, the audience consisted of a panel of five judges, community leaders, city and county government officials, key staff and executives from the various partner organizations, neighbors, and friends. Each pitch was limited to five minutes, followed by questions from the judges. In addition to the assessment by the judges, the audience was asked to vote via phone text for a Final Pitch People’s Choice Award recipient. The presentations were thorough and reflected the learning and hard work that had been gained over the previous two months. After a lengthy deliberation the judges determined the following awards:
- First place ($40,000): Lydia Newman with her business Word of God Christian Academy Tech Career Pathways. Her business proposal is to increase tech job skills and college preparation for SE Raleigh students in grades 8-12. These “Tech Ambassadors” will develop culturally relevant tech-related activities. This was viewed very important because of the lack of overall diversity in technical skills such as software coding.
- Second place ($30,000): Major Best for Barber School. His proposal was to create a barber college which will bring resources and job opportunities to the community. The focus will be on at-risk youth and formerly incarcerated individuals. Students will receive training on job skills, life skills and overall business career preparation. The Barber School will also offer $5 haircuts.
- Third place ($20,000) and People’s Choice Award ($2500): Jana Avery for No Friday’s for Music. This is a nonprofit centered on the artistic and personal development of Southeast Raleigh youth. The program will also focus on the skill development to work in the music industry.
- Fourth place (tie, $5000 each). Malikia Robertson for Yoga4Us (promoting fitness, wellness, and positive lifestyle for women) and Keschia Martin for Players2Pros (assists football athletes in skill, academic preparations, character development, and obtaining college scholarships).
The five participants receiving Seed Capital Awards were: Brandy Burnett for Smart Money Matters; Fernando Martinez for Education Justice Alliance Peacebuilders; Wilma Metcalf for The Baby Box; Nathaniel Myers for The Malkuta Project; Darryel Washington for Front and Back 9 Junior Golf Academy.
Overall, the Innovation Challenge, from the planning stage to the final pitch competition, was a huge success. All of the co-design team members, partners, and participants felt that this was a valuable and impactful experience. This is just the beginning of an ongoing overall strategy used by Wake County and the City of Raleigh to address, alleviate, and resolve the concerns of SE Raleigh. CSBDF and the Innovation and Entrepreneurship Center will play a major role in this effort. While only 10 applicants ultimately received monetary awards, and only 25 who received training in the accelerator programs, all 53 applicants had good ideas on how to improve their community. With the help of Wake County, the City of Raleigh, and others who partner with us, we will not only work with the final awardees, but we will make sure we are available to assist all of the applicants. Some ideas and solutions may come to fruition in a collaborative way and some may stand on their own. In any case, we will seek to fulfill our role as dreamcatchers in the Southeast Raleigh community!