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Pitch in the City event gives local entrepreneurs the spotlight

Tech Connections and PracticeGigs were the winning startups

Martin Desmarais
Pitch in the City event gives local entrepreneurs the spotlight
CEO Melissa James and Tech Connection won the expert panel’s choice as best business pitch in the inaugural Pitch In The City event held March 26 at Hibernian Hall.

Melissa James and the Tech Connection may have officially won the expert panel’s choice as best business pitch in of the inaugural “Pitch in the City” held on March 26 at Hibernian Hall, but all the candidates gained valuable experience about the importance of the pitch process — and demonstrated their growing presence as entrepreneurs.

The “Pitch in the City” event, organized by Banner Biz Magazine and sponsored by Northeastern University, offers substantial support and connections to all the startups that participated. It also was a great warmup for the day when these young entrepreneurs will appear before investors, seeking a serious cash infusion to keep their businesses growing.

Seven startups from throughout Boston threw down their challenges to impress a five-person panel of knowledgeable entrepreneurs and business strategists led by Harvard Business School Professor Steven Rogers. Joining the fray were Nicholas Naraghi, CEO of Northeastern startup accelerator IDEA; Aaron Green, founder and CEO of Professional Staffing Group and head of investment firm PSG Ventures; Glynn Lloyd, co-owner of City Fresh Foods and managing director of the Boston Impact Initiative; and Donna Gittens, founder and CEO of More Advertising.

The event was moderated by former City Councilor John Tobin, vice president of city and community affairs at Northeastern.

In announcing the winner of the pitch competition, Rogers said it was a tough decision because all did a great job with their presentations. But Melissa James and Tech Connection ultimately won out.

The panel was swayed by her straightforward presentation and, ultimately, her business idea to capitalize on the technology industry’s increasing demand for diversity recruitment. Her staffing company connects minority tech workers — specifically entry-level software engineers and IT professionals from underrepresented communities — with tech companies seeking to hire.

With her triumph at “Pitch in the City,” James garnered some serious expertise and person hours to continue the growth of her Roxbury-based business, which she started last summer.

To wit: Rogers and his team of students from Harvard Business School’s African American Student Union will provide consulting services. Green will give her 10 hours to help her continue to develop her business, with a possible future investment. Gittens offered 10 hours of her time to help Tech Connection come up with a marketing strategy. Naraghi offered Northeastern support in the form of its Community Business Clinic for legal advice along with the option to join the IDEA venture acceleration program. Other winners that night include Practice Gigs who was offered mentoring from Glynn Lloyd with the possibility of funding, and Naraghi offered Civica mentoring.

Strong bench

James was the big winner of the night and was wowed by the pitch event and the tremendous support it has now brought her startup.

“I think we have a real opportunity to build something really great right here in Dudley, and I am really excited about it. I am really humbled and grateful for all the mentors that have offered their resources to me because we can’t do something like this alone. We have to do this together and I am really grateful for the opportunity,” said James.

She also sees her victory as a vote of confidence for an initiative tackling an issue that is so important to Boston’s communities — increasing diversity in the workplace. For James, it only makes sense that local stalwart institutions, such as Harvard and Northeastern, along with well-known successful entrepreneurs like Lloyd, Rogers and Gittens would be onboard with what the Tech Connection is trying to do.

“We have the knowledge to solve this problem. Even if it is a little step in the right direction, we have made such great progress in that way, and building the Tech Connection and seeing this idea come to fruition is one step in the process. We are working on this idea together and that is what this really means to me,” James added.

PracticeGigs, a company that is building a peer-to-peer mobile app for athletes, won the event’s Twitter challenge and a $250 prize.

Other startups taking part in “Pitch in the City” were: KillerBoomBox Media Group, a multi-media publishing brand focusing on documenting the lifestyle of multicultural youth through music and entertainment content, founded by Darius McCroey, Brandon Matthews and Greg Valentino Ball; Harber Clothing, an inspirational-based clothing line started by Taylor Ross, Harry Berduo and Luca Pignatiello; Civica, a developer of web applications that include a program making voting data available to the public, founded by Adam Friedman; Post Game Fashion, a website that allows fans to purchase the outfits worn by their favorite athletes, founded by Amanda Barros and Paul Barros; and True Moringa, a company started by Kwami Williams and Emily Cunningham, which has developed beauty products that rely on herbal products grown by small farmers in Ghana.

Learn by doing

Win or lose all the entrepreneurs that took part in “Pitch in the City” valued the experience.

The panel mostly grilled the presenters on crucial questions for their businesses including: How do you make money? How will you market your business? How does your business work? What are your goals?

Civica’s Friedman said the event was his first pitch, but he hoped to be able to improve on his future performance based on the feedback.

“I am happy to get as much candid feedback as possible so I can continue to polish it,” he said. “I see this process as iterative. It is never finished.”

It was also the first pitch experience for the founders of Harber Clothing. Ross said that it is great exposure and experience for their young company, something he hopes could put the company on the path to a successful future.

KillerBoomBox Media Group’s founders have presented before at other business plan contests. Ball believes each experience has only made them stronger at selling their enterprise, which is crucial.

“Our pitches have given us a kind of understanding of how to best present our business so having those situation where we have pitched and we have done horrible, where we have pitched and we have done great, and being able to blend all that together is what has got us in the right spot now,” said Ball.

They all hope to take any feedback they can get and run with it.

Northeastern’s Naraghi agrees that is the best thinking.

“If you get a piece of feedback a day, some of it is going to be bad, a lot of it will be bad, but if you can figure out the good pieces of it and incorporate that into the business you are going to see stuff that — when you have got your blinders on and you are trying to launch or you are trying to get your prototype done — you might not actually see otherwise, and this can help you avoid some really big pitfalls,” he said.

Social impact

One strong takeaway from the event was the commitment of all the pitch candidates to have some kind of social impact with their startups.

This was a welcome development for Lloyd, who as managing director of the Boston Impact Initiative, makes it his job to find and support organizations and businesses that provide services to the diverse communities of color throughout the city.

“The new generation is inheriting a world that really has issues that we have to solve, bottom line. And when you look at the educational level and the customer awareness out there, people don’t want to just spend money anymore. They are looking at ‘if I spend a dollar I want to spend it in the right way,’ so they are tapping into that energy too and it is great to see,” Lloyd said.

He added that the businesses on display at “Pitch in the City” showed that young local entrepreneurs are doing “amazing things in the community” and need to have resources moved to back them. He called this a necessary move to support and strengthen the entrepreneurial ecosystem.