5 local businesses. 5 minutes. $5K. Startup Zoo returns.

The entrepreneur support network returns with the first of its new monthly pitch competitions and a series of programs to invigorate local business growth.

After a five-year hiatus, Startup Zoo has re-launched with a $5,000 grand prize for its new monthly pitch competition, which Demargeo White of Huey D’s Goodies won last Friday.

The competition is one of a number of the initiatives by the organization that was first launched in 2007 to help start-ups and other entrepreneurs discover best practices, investment, and other support.

“We don’t have the limitations we had 10 years ago as far as investors,” says Carl Brown, co-founder and interim director of Startup Zoo. He says this 5×5 pitch competition (five entrepreneurs pitching for five minutes each) is the first ever held in the city.

Eric Cunningham, Clarence Lloyd, and Wesley Youngs sit behind a table talking.
Judges of the pitch competition discuss in between presenters: Eric Cunningham (left), Clarence Lloyd (center), Wesley Youngs (right).

After their pitch, the four businesspeople (a fifth did not show) fielded three minutes of questioning from judges Clarence Lloyd, Vice President and Director of Southwest Michigan First Chamber; Eric Cunningham, Program Officer of the Local Initiatives Support Corporation (LISC); and Wesley Youngs, Financial Services and Sales Leader of Honor Credit Union.

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White says this was the fourth local pitch competition he’s entered but the first he’s won. White founded Huey D’s Goodies LLC in 2019, a gourmet cheesecake business. He says his current focus is to hire a baker to alleviate the work he currently does all by himself, with only occasional help from his family when they’re available.

“A lot of people say there’s no opportunity in Kalamazoo but really they’re running in the wrong circles,” he says, reinvigorated, a $5,000 check in hand.

The audience voted Imani Williams the winner of a people’s choice award and a $500 check. Williams pitched her idea for a free entertainment and dating app called Breaking Crucial Boundaries, a platform she says “caters to the LGBT community and allies.” The senior at Western Michigan University says this was the first pitch competition she’s entered with an opportunity to earn funds.

Imani Williams networks with another person in a large room
Imani Williams, left, was the winner of the Startup Zoo pitch competition people’s choice award.

“I’m here for the experience more than anything,” Williams says. She followed up with attendees to gain their feedback on her performance and business idea.

Jessica Griffioen pitched her business Portage Family Healing Center, which aims to grow mental health services among its holistic treatment practices which began in 2022.

Aaron Gipson created Royal Brand Clothing, a high-end street clothing brand, in 2018. During his pitch, Gibson said he’d use the investment to support a gear and merchandise deal in the works with the Kalamazoo Galaxy, the city’s new semi-professional basketball team.

The experience and years of operation varied among the competitors. Brown, also a business development strategist, says there’s confusion in the market about the startup stage as a time in business. He says a business qualifies as a startup based on whether it has the potential to sustain on its own and if it’s reached that point.

Aaron Gipson, Bobby Hopewell, and Carl Brown chat in a front of a window.
Cofounder and Interim Director of Startup Zoo, Carl Brown (right) talks with pitch competition participant Aaron Gipson (left), founder of Royal Brand Clothing, and Bobby Hopewell, Kalamazoo’s former mayor.

When Brown cofounded Startup Zoo in 2007 the focus was on tech entrepreneurs, which was challenged by an industry like Kalamazoo’s which has traditionally prioritized life sciences startups.

Brown says the “folks who helped those first entrepreneurs grow were based elsewhere because the capital was elsewhere.” He says eventually the entrepreneurs went elsewhere too, following the money and opportunity.

The use of virtual meeting platforms, driven largely by the COVID-19 pandemic, has enabled startups and investors to connect from anywhere in the world according to Brown. He says this expands the pool of investment opportunities for startups, and vice versa for financiers.

“If we’re building a business in Kalamazoo, we can’t look at Kalamazoo as the end of the market, so we have to look at investors that are not exclusively in Kalamazoo,” he says.

However, the current challenge is that “institutional investment and venture capitalists say they don’t know what’s happening in Kalamazoo,” he says.

That’s the barrier Startup Zoo aims to eliminate in its mission to fund the next generation of entrepreneurs. Brown says the nonprofit partners with Michigan Founders Fund, a network of entrepreneurs and investors who have pledged 1% of equity, carry, or profit to support local organizations throughout the state.

Demargeo White prepares to hand out sample of cheesecake
Demargeo White hands out samples of his gourmet cheesecake cupcakes, Huey D’s Goodies.

Startup Zoo now offers a year-long residency program dedicated to nurturing scalable growth. Its website features a rotation of trainings and workshops. The deadline to apply for the next pitch competition is March 6, with the pitch event date in April yet to be determined. Organizers say they plan to hold one every month moving forward.

Brown says ultimately, it’s about “giving people the combination of confidence and competence to do what moves the entrepreneurship community forward.”

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