Startup Challenge Monterey Bay is back, and this year’s field has numerous competitors from San Benito County.
“A few years ago, we saw Mars Hill Coffee Shop win the Main Street Division,” said Brad Barbeau, Startup Challenge Monterey Bay executive director. “Since then, we’ve seen a real increase in businesses coming out of San Benito County. They’ve been fabulous businesses.”
The challenge, hosted by the Institute for Innovation and Economic Development at CSU-Monterey Bay, is a competition open to businesses and entrepreneurs operating in San Benito, Santa Cruz and Monterey counties. Businesses present pitches and participate in workshops, receive feedback and engage a network of professional support.
Linda Lampe, co-founder and director of the San Benito County nonprofit Worth Saving Mercantile and Thrift Store, will compete in the Social Venture division, the Startup Challenge’s newest category, which is open to businesses and nonprofits that make social enterprise a key part of their mission.
“Worth Saving was launched to help fund our outreach center, My Father’s House. It’s rewarding work, but very time-consuming—I work seven days a week,” said Lampe. “I’m so focused on who I’m helping that I’m not mindful of the business aspect of this operation. Regardless of whether or not we win, this competition has put me in the mindset of making Worth Saving a successful business.”
Raymond Garcia, president of the nonprofit JMM Dance Co. is also competing in the Social Venture division.
“We participated in the competition last year, and it really helped us to grow,” Garcia said. “Attending seminars with other business owners helped us to focus our ideas and our business plan. Even though we’re a nonprofit, we still need to bring in money to fund our operations, and participating in this competition has given us the confidence to apply for more grants and ask for more money.”
JMM Dance Co.’s aim is to provide theme-based educational dance programming dedicated to children with special needs. Garcia was inspired to start the company with his wife, Veronica Vasquez, after they observed that their son, who is autistic, needed an outlet to express himself without fear or judgment.
“He’s there every Friday,” Garcia said. “He doesn’t always say he loves it—sometimes he acts like he’s too cool—but we can tell he’s enjoying himself.”
Other participants in the Startup Challenge will also compete in the Venture, Main Street, and Student divisions. The Venture division will offer a total of $30,000 in prize money, the Social Venture and Main Street divisions will each offer a total of $15,000 in prize money and the Student division will offer a total of $1,500 in prize money.
Vasquez is also participating in the Startup Challenge, entering her own business, Dance Minds, into the Venture division. A lifelong dancer, Vasquez has been teaching in dance studios and choreographing quinceañeras since she was 19. Dance Minds is a fusion of her two passions: dancing and business.
“What I really love is learning about how different employees work together, and how different companies can partner and use each other’s values to integrate business models and stay profitable,” Vasquez said.
Participants will compete in a qualifying round on April 6, where they will present a five-minute business pitch to a panel of judges. Those selected will advance to the final round on May 10, where they will present a 10-minute business pitch to a panel of judges. The evening of May 10 is the Venture Showcase, an expo where all participants can share their businesses with the public.
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