Brad Barbeau, executive director of the Institute for Innovation & Economic Development, addresses the crowd the 2019 Startup Challenge. Photo by Matt Koller.
Brad Barbeau, executive director of the Institute for Innovation & Economic Development, addresses the crowd the 2019 Startup Challenge. Photo by Matt Koller.

At a time when millions of Americans find themselves at home with nothing but time on their hands, Veronica Vasquez is hard at work. Her day job as a fitness and wellness manager for a Palo Alto nursing home, which entails running projects to keep over 400 people in good health, is a bit more challenging to do from her living room. Yet she makes do and offers five virtual classes a week, all of which are designed to form a bond with her residents.

“It can be hard on them, but running these classes is so much fun,” Vasquez said. “They get so much out of the connection.”

Those classes will come in handy when Vazquez takes part in the May finals for the Startup Challenge Monterey Bay, a competition hosted by the Institute for Innovation and Economic Development (IIED) at CSU-Monterey Bay. The challenge will be held virtually for the first time because of the shelter-in-place order.

Connecting with others through physical fitness is second nature for a lifelong dancer like Vasquez. She moonlights as the founding director of JMM All Abilities Dance Co., a San Benito County nonprofit organization entered in the Social Venture division of the startup challenge. This is Vasquez’s second consecutive year competing.

“This year, I don’t feel as stressed trying to memorize my pitch,” she said. “I have more experience running this organization, which has been doing something impactful for a longer period of time. Last year we were still trying to figure out what’s sticking and what’s not. This year, I feel more confident telling our story to the judges.”

Instead of pitching on stage in front of a panel of judges, finalists will record themselves at home pitching to a computer screen. But social distancing measures won’t get in the way of the 31 regional entrepreneurs who’ve made it to the final round.

“These are the times when you need innovation,” said Mary Jo Zenk, a program manager at IIED and the person responsible for organizing Startup Challenge Monterey Bay. “We are looking for creative ways to solve complex problems, and now is a good time to turn problems into opportunities through innovation.”

The online format has made the workshops, which help applicants and finalists hone their messaging, more accessible to those who would otherwise be geographically isolated. The challenge delivered 18 workshops online, providing 122 participants with the resources to develop their business.

Of all the participants, only 53% went on to pitch at the qualifying round. In 2019, 64% of the businesses that entered the competition pitched in the qualifying round. Zenk attributed the decline to various issues applicants faced in response to COVID-19.

Yet the show must go on, and the competition will continue as scheduled with four divisions: Venture, Social Venture, Main Street, and Student. The final round is scheduled for May 8.

JMM Dance is the only competing organization from San Benito County. According to its website, the nonprofit’s mission is to “expand dance education to people of all abilities by providing equity, accessibility, inclusive resources and exposure to the tools of visual and performing arts for the purpose of self-development.”

Since last year, Vasquez has worked to expand JMM Dance’s programming, which now includes everything from junior hip-hop tumble to an after school dance program offered free of charge to San Juan Bautista students ages five to 10. She attributed the successes she’s experienced as a direct result of participating in the previous challenge.

One of the biggest challenges of migrating the competition online is holding a virtual event that relies on vivid storytelling and human interaction. Instead of the judges’ question and answer sessions that usually follow each finalist’s presentation, judges will instead schedule virtual meetings with each contestant following their 10-minute video pitches. While it’s not yet certain whether the final proceedings will be livestreamed, the plan is for each finalist’s pitch to be available online after the contest.

Despite the format changes, Startup Challenge Monterey Bay’s mission remains the same: to encourage local entrepreneurs to hone their pitches and obtain constructive feedback on building successful businesses and organizations. Whoever wins won’t be posing with a trophy and a big check—they’ll have to settle for a screenshot sitting in their living room. However, Zenk is optimistic that the winners will have the chance to be honored later in the year.

“We hope to honor the winners at a live event format in the fall,” she said. “We’d love a photo of them with a big check and a trophy.”

While Vasquez is certainly competing to win, she sees the bigger picture.

“I’m here to build relationships and learn from others,” she said. “There are so many people that know more than you. It’s easier to learn from the mistakes they’ve made than to make them yourself. I’m just looking forward to sharing what I’ve accomplished over the last year and getting more feedback.”


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