Benton Harbor Pitch Night Winners

Each time the automatic doors opened to the entryway of Mosaic CCDA’s headquarters and resale store, excitement doubled and energy hummed. Despite sleet and cold attempting to invade the lobby, new hope burned and filled the room.

Benton Harbor's Traci Burton, Community Engagement SpecialistIt was Benton Harbor’s first-ever Pitch Night for Black, Hispanic, and Indigenous persons of color, held recently as a community event hosted by Mosaic CCDA, sponsored by Whirlpool Corporation and PNC Bank. Chosen from more than 34 applicants, 15 competitors—representing startups, small businesses and social enterprises—were invited to present a five-minute business pitch in front of a live audience to a panel of judges. The panel included George Bibbs from Whirlpool Corporation, who leads the company’s employee resource group “FOCUS,” the African-American Network; Joy Bancroft, local entrepreneur from Red Coach Donuts; Traci Burton, a former participant in Mosaic’s Emerge Accelerator program and community engagement specialist as well as business owner of a multicultural marketing firm; and Ethan Daly, United States regional director of Partners Worldwide.

I was amazed by so many phenomenal business ideas. It shows that there is so much untapped potential in the Benton Harbor community.”

“I was amazed by so many phenomenal business ideas. It shows that there is so much untapped potential in the Benton Harbor community,” said Andrew Robinson, executive director of Mosaic CCDA. “I appreciate the financial support that Whirlpool and the business equity workstream provided to these entrepreneurs.”

Neriah and Naoimi Stephens with mom Ashley, owners of NS CosmeticsThe collaboration evolved from an active listening campaign that volunteers serving on Whirlpool Corporation’s Microgrant Workstream engaged in with local Black-owned business owners. The workstream was formed as part of the company’s commitment to business and community support in its headquarters’ community for its Multi-Year U.S. Action Plan and Equality Pledge, launched in 2020. When employee Phil Swanson from the Whirlpool Global Innovation team learned about an Emerge Accelerator program that Mosaic had piloted, his passion grew. Swanson quickly rose to connect the dots, bridge the relationships between the community agency and businesses, and lead the Pitch Night for Whirlpool Corporation.

Swanson said he heard varying versions of the same comment as he chatted with a number of the entrepreneurs, “I don’t care that I didn’t win. The networking and support has been worth it.” He added, “This is just as important, if not more important, than the money we awarded. There is already excitement brewing for the next competition, and more interest in the entrepreneurial support organization and the Emerge Accelerator because of the Pitch Night.”

The Benton Harbor Pitch Night Panel of Judges selected the following winners:

Sharee Brooks, owner of Benton Harbor Beauty AcademyFIRST PLACE: NS Cosmetics – a team of two sisters, Neriah and Naoimi Stephens, who want to provide natural and organic beauty products to the world. Their homemade products can be purchased from their website. This year they’ve sold 5,000 units at $30,000 in revenue and will invest their $5,000 prize money in packaging.

SECOND PLACE: Benton Harbor Beauty Academy founder Sharee Brooks, is a Benton Harbor native who recently secured space for her school in downtown Benton Harbor. Brooks wants to provide Benton Harbor natives the same opportunities she’s had without traveling to Kalamazoo and neighboring communities to explore a future in cosmetology and learn more about caring for textured hair. Brooks’ $2,500 prize will be invested in her beauty school.

Aiyenede Akhigbe, owner of Sticky Spoons Jam, LLC presenting her business pitchTHIRD PLACE: Sticky Spoons Jam, LLC founder Aiyenede Akhigbe and U.S. Navy Veteran, started Sticky Spoons in 2016 after an inability to source organic jams without high fructose corn syrup. Akhigbe’s jams, jellies and syrups are sourced from small family-owned farms in Michigan. She now produces over 100 flavors including consumer favorites like apple pie, peach mango, strawberry banana pineapple and blueberry lavender, with ideas to use in cooking, baking, drinks, and on bread. Her products can be purchased here. She plans to use her $1,000 prize to invest in marketing and jars for packaging.

This is only the beginning. The pitch competition has laid the groundwork for more planned competitions in the future to empower and mobilize local businesses and the people behind them. One attendee summed it up best: “I think Benton Harbor is on to something.”

Learn more about the Pitch Night sponsors and the ways they are making a real, positive impact in our communities through Whirlpool Corporation House + Home, and Philanthropy at PNC.