Everyone was a winner at the Verge Conference, but for the grand prize recipients of $100,000, the money means they can make their aspirations a reality.
“You can reach your dreams,” Paula Nichols said after she was handed a $100,000 check to help get her and her husband’s vision of a Spanish Immersion Preschool one step closer to fruition.
“I love to be able to share this opportunity with community and the children,” Nichols said. “Our motto is to empower the children to reach their dreams of tomorrow.”
The conference was at the Gesa Power House Theatre on Thursday, May 25. The primary objective of the event was to empower regional BIPOC entrepreneurs, promote the development of veteran- and women-owned businesses, and to provide support to small enterprises in underserved regions spanning three counties, including Walla Walla County.
The funding, made possible by the Washington State Department of Commerce’s Small Business Innovation Fund, was split into two phases, with $405,000 distributed through technical assistance grants and $230,000 awarded at the event.
Initially, a total of 91 businesses submitted their applications for an opportunity to participate in the conference. Out of those, 39 were chosen to receive cash award grants, which varied from $1,250 to $2,500. Among the applicants, 11 businesses were selected to present their pitches at the Gesa Power House Theatre.
The conference, hosted by the Downtown Walla Walla Foundation and Kindling Coworking, began with an introduction panel discussion. A session followed that was presented by Rebecca Thorpe of the Blue Zones Project.
At 3:15 p.m. Jenny Nguyen, owner of The Sports Bra in Portland, sat down with Kathryn Witherington, executive director of the Downtown Walla Walla Foundation, for an “Oprah-style” interview session. Nguyen talked about how she became a successful businesswoman by opening the first sports bar that features only women’s sports. During the interview she offered advice to budding entrepreneurs and explained how the bar was able to make almost $1 million in 8 months.
Rodney Outlaw and Lindsey Luna were the emcees and welcomed the 11 entrepreneurs for the beginning of the pitching segment of the evening. The co-hosts went over the rules for the “Shark Tank”-style competition. In a nutshell, the entrepreneurs presented one at a time in alphabetical order and had five minutes to pitch their business and four minutes to answer any questions from the judges. Some of the pitches were presented in Spanish, and the judges had headsets to hear the translations.
Before the conference, Sundown Hazen, co-owner of Chesed Farms and one of the competitors, said when he saw the opportunity to get some extra cash for his farm-to-table mushroom business, he couldn’t let it pass.
“As a startup business, it’s challenging to get up and go to scale regardless of what business you’re in,” Hazen said. “This opportunity seemed like the perfect chance to help us grow faster.”
He said the impact grants and other funding provided by the Downtown Walla Walla Foundation and Kindling Coworking have greatly worked to help uplift the small business and entrepreneurial community in the Valley and beyond.
“It’s great that the organizations perused those opportunities to help out lots of startups and small businesses,” Hazen said. “I’m a big advocate of the local economy, and making sure that we support and uplift those businesses is so important.”
Abundant Life Childcare in Waitsburg opened the pitch competition at 4:30 p.m. Jennifer Beckmeyer and Kaylee James presented for the childcare service and said the grand prize would help the business renovate a building in town that could host the service. Beckmeyer said there are no licensed childcare facilities in Waitsburg, Dayton and Prescott, which is why the service is so needed. She said only licensed childcare facilities are eligible to accept childcare vouchers to help pay.
Chesed Farms pitched next. Hazen, who operates the sustainable gourmet mushroom and produce operation, said the $100,000 would be used to further increase the year-round growing capacity and would lead to job growth. In 5 years, he sees himself “growing a lot of food and feeding a lot of people.”
Juan Ramirez of Evergreen Lawn Care pitched third and said if the business received the $100,000 they would be able to purchase new equipment that would take their services to the next level.
Then Oscar Floor Covering entered the stage, where owner of the business, Oscar Zamora, said the money would help him hire more employees and further help the community.
The next competitor was Regina Weldert who has been roasting coffee for 20 years. Weldert, owner and head coffee roaster of Rey’s Roast, pitched to get a larger roaster that would triple her production for her wholesale business. She said she would be able to hire employees to keep up with the increased production.
Sonrisas Spanish Immersion Preschool, owned and operated by Paula and Ben Nichols, went next. The couple said the service provides an opportunity to teach children how to speak both Spanish and English. The couple said the preschool will be Walla Walla’s very first Spanish language immersion preschool. The grand prize would be used to renovate their 1,400 square foot four-car garage into a preschool that would host 20 children. They estimated they would need $150,000 to open their doors.
After a short intermission, owner of T Barbershop, Tobit Salazar, pitched to create a more accessible and inclusive barber academy in Walla Walla. He said the grant would help him to get his vision of the Walla Walla Barber Academy and Incubator off the ground. He said with more than 21 years of experience in barbering, he would be able to support aspiring barbers throughout their training at the academy. The money would be used to purchase equipment and create an endowment to help the first students pay for their education.
Fausto Martinez of Tigers Drywall pitched to expand his construction business. He said by having the opportunity to expand he could help more customers across the Valley.
Twisted Wire Coffee went next, and Brian and Kristi Bartels, co-owners of the coffee company and cafe, started with an interesting fact. Located in Pomeroy, the business is the only restaurant that is open 7 days a week in Garfield County. The Bartels said the money would help them pave the parking lot in which they are located, so they would be able to expand their catering business.
Cole Walking Eagle, owner of Walking Eagle Mobility, pitched next. The business puts together customizable power and manual wheelchairs to help clients have a better quality of life. Walking Eagle said the money would help the business reach more customers and purchase more parts for the wheelchairs.
The final competitors, Laura Angulo and Madelyn Free of Worthfit Studio, told judges how they would use the $100,000. Angulo said they currently have 297 active memberships, they are running out of space, and they can only do one group class. The money would be used to help upgrade their new location that expands their current space by threefold. For Angulo, more space means more opportunity to host more classes such as kickboxing and circuit training.
The judges then left from their balcony seating to determine who would walk away with the top prizes of the night. Finally, after many minutes of tense anticipation, the emcees returned to present the winners.
The $5,000 cash winners were Abundant Life Childcare, Chesed Farms, Evergreen Lawn Care, Oscar’s Floor Covering, Rey’s Roast, Tigers Drywall and Walking Eagle Mobility.
Twisted Wire Coffee and Worthfit Studio walked away with $25,000 each. Brian and Kristi Bartels said the award is huge for them and their business. “This allows us to continue to expand our mission in our community,” the couple said.
Tobit Salazar of T Barbershop received a $50,000 check for the Walla Walla Barbering Academy. He said the award is a representation of the generosity and support of Walla Walla. “This is a long time in the making,” he said. “It takes a village to raise a child, but I am a product of being raised in the friendliest town in America.”
Kathryn Witherington closed the event with a final remark.
“Thank you all for being a part of this incredible journey,” Witherington said. “Come to us with questions. Come to us with dreams. Thank you for being a part incredible night.”