Young entrepreneurs make their pitches

Every business has one thing in common. It began with an idea.
For members of Western Michigan University’s Starting Gate program, those ideas are all in different stages of infancy. On March 19, the program’s Demo Day gave eight young entrepreneurs, and some of their business partners an opportunity to put those ideas on full display as they were pitched in eight-minute increments to area business leaders, investors, and legal experts, as well as faculty members and peers.
Concepts went from men’s undergarments, to a travel agency that specializes in new and unique experiences, sending its clients to a destination unknown, to recreation centers, youth camps, and physical therapy devices. Some of the business ideas being pitched were already established and operating LLCs quickly broadening their client base, while others were still going through various stages of obtaining funding, applying for nonprofit status, and taking the necessary steps to get off the ground.
Located in the Park Trade Center, 326 W. Kalamazoo Ave. Suite #321 and operated by the Haworth College of Business Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation, Starting Gate is a competition-driven business accelerator program open to students of all majors that provides participants with valuable resources designed to help develop their startup ventures and put them on the fast track for success.
“All the students involved are working on their own businesses on their own time,” says Lara Hobson, WMU professor and Starting Gate director of operations. “It’s a great program that we have been fortunate enough to have here at Western for the past four and a half years. This is the biggest group we’ve had since we started the program.”
Making their pitch
Demo Day marks the culmination of the program each year, and those involved have more at stake than simply an end of semester presentation. As opposed to presenting to a class full of peers with an end goal of receiving a grade for merit and participation, those involved in Starting Gate are pitching to area business leaders with the hope of receiving upward of $10,000 in funding for their aspiring businesses.
Thinking outside of the box becomes imperative for these young entrepreneurs as they work hard to separate their newborn ideas from the pack and create and present something in which there is not just market demand for but that can demonstrate a reason for consumers to be drawn to their product.
Sustainability, community, health, leadership, useful technology, and adventure were at the heart of the varying businesses being presented this year.
Aspiring fashion designer Avery Green is already making strides down the runway with his dresses and his product line of men’s undergarments, but before showing off his work at Chicago Fashion Week in mid-April he pitched his fast-developing business plan that focuses on more than just what men are wearing underneath their daily attire.
“Being a fashion designer, we have a big crisis on our hands,” explains Green, founder and CEO of up-and-coming fashion company House of Pariah. “The fashion industry is the second most pollutive in the world only to the oil industry. This hit home really hard for me as being a fashion designer you don’t want to hear that your industry as a whole is having a really poor effect on the planet.”
With that information at hand, Green set out to create a sustainable fashion brand. He plans to demonstrate complete transparency with his product line, allowing consumers to track every step of his supply chain on his website, where his materials are coming from and who he is working with. The result will no doubt be more expensive garments, but it will also mean longer-lasting underwear that he says will be guaranteed for up to four years.
“I asked myself, ‘what is missing from the sustainable fashion industry right now?’ People want to understand which brands are considered sustainable and who they can trust, and they also want companies that they can feel will represent them, specifically minorities, and that is how I plan to fill the gaps. I’ll be using eco-friendly packaging and really focusing on the nonbinary market because that is what I feel will separate me from the competition.”
Green plans to begin with a basics collection and expand beyond that after graduate school.
Giving back
A pair of Detroit natives, Justin Banks, and Lakeisha Brown, came to Demo Day with two different pitches aimed at giving back to the communities in which they came from.
Banks, a WMU senior studying exercise science, has plans to bring a recreation center to the neighborhood which he grew up in, which happens to be one of the most impoverished and crime-ridden places not just in the City of Detroit but in the country.
“People always ask me, ‘why a recreation center, what can that do for a community?’ Banks asks. “Think of Detroit, think of downtown all the change that is happening, the technology, the businesses coming in. That gives me so much hope, IF I lived in downtown.
“I’m from the west side of Detroit, the 48228-zip code. The Crime Index is a two. To be the safest it has to be 100. Almost half of the people there are living below the poverty rate and the average home costs only $23,000. It needs a lot of help and a lot of resources. A lot of children that don’t have the resources that they need in school and they don’t have the opportunity to unlock the resources that are within them. Enough with that. It’s time for a change.”
To implement that change Banks is applying for 501(c)3 (nonprofit) status and seeking funding to purchase an abandoned school in the neighborhood, renovate it, and transform it into a recreation center that will also eventually house a library and computer lab to help further education in the area.
“When you look at what my competition is, the Detroit YMCA has a lot of resources and would be great if I lived downtown and could get there,” he says. “This will be located directly in the neighborhood and have programs tailored to the community culture and affordable memberships at that.”
Lakeisha Brown is another entrepreneur intent on helping Detroit. Brown’s emerging cosmetic line, Glitter Glam, has its designs on improving conditions for children and convicted felons, by “providing work for juveniles, teens who have been convicted and reducing chances for those employed committing crimes again.” Those employed by Glitter Glam will produce low-cost products such as lip gloss, eyewear and makeup highlighter that target millennial women. Brown’s business is already up and running.
Other pitches
Also participating in this year’s Demo Day was: Chris Messar, who is in the midst of developing Theradeck, a lightweight, affordable physical therapy table that will provide the ability for patients to perform an increased amount of PT exercises at home; Aatif Ghouri is launching WizLeaf this April, an online textbook resource that aims to save students thousands of dollars over the course of their collegiate careers by providing an interactive online study experience that bridges the gap between readers and publishers; Matt Tomkiel’s Young Leader Day Camps, which will focus on leadership skills for children age 7-12; Zac Carver’s Aphrodite Wristbands, which will help let people know your relationship status with one click glance; and Desi Taylor’s Cluventure Travel, which sends clients off on new adventures, both near and far, destination unknown.  
Look for a story on Taylor’s Cluventure Travel this April in Southwest Michigan's Second Wave. 

Ryan Boldrey is a freelance journalist and editor living in Kalamazoo. A Michigan native, he returned to his home state in 2016 after spending the better part of a decade working as a writer and editor in Colorado. He spends much of his time traveling to see live music and is an avid Michigan State and Detroit sports fan.
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