The Dallas Morning News
Jewelry venture clasps $75,000 prize
5 social enterprises try to out-sparkle rivals in Shark pitches
One hundred grand was up for grabs last week at the Bomb Factory in Dallas’ Deep Ellum district.
Brittany Underwood, founder of Akola Project, walked away with $75,000 of it. Daron Babcock, executive director of Bonton Farms, snared the remainder.
The two nonprofit leaders were the winners in OneUp the Pitch hosted by United Way of Metropolitan Dallas and five area chapters of the Young Presidents Organization.
Billed as “Shark Tank With a Heart,” there weren’t a lot of glistening teeth
from the celebrity judges. Harrison Barnes, the Dallas Mavericks’ hot rising star and one of the judges, talked a good game before the show.
“Cold shark, ready to eat,” the Mavs starting forward said, meaning that he hadn’t boned up on the contestants ahead of time. “That’s my philosophy.”
But none of the judges — Barnes, Amber Venz Box, superstar fashion blogger; David Brown, Dallas’ recently retired police chief; Lyda Hill, one of the city’s most generous philanthropists; or Todd Wagner, CEO of the Charity Network and Mark Cuban’s longtime billionaire business partner — assumed the snarky role of shark Kevin O’Leary, a.k.a. Mr. Wonderful.
The only bad dude on stage was the emcee who kept a strict watch on the 4-minute clock, the time that each contestant had to present a heartfelt case. The audience appreciated his resolve in keeping the 90-minute show rolling at a quick clip.
Standing room only
The club-dark event with adult beverages drew an eclectic following that wasn’t the typical cohort of a Dallas fundraiser.
That’s precisely what Jennifer Sampson, CEO of Dallas’ United Way, was after when she came up with the idea and enlisted her comrades at the Young Presidents Organization to act as coaches to the social entrepreneur contestants.
“It was standing room only,” Sampson said delightedly. “There were so many young people. That’s a great sign because we’re trying to build up that pipeline for the future. There was energy in that room that I haven’t felt for a long time. It was like a shot of adrenalin for all of us trying to raise awareness of social innovation and social enterprise.”
Going into the competition, Chad Houser, executive director and chef of Cafe Momentum, seemed to be the odds-on favorite, given the success of his downtown Dallas restaurant that teaches job skills to juvenile offenders recently released from jail.
Robert Gregory won tickets from his job as retail connection manager at AT&T Mobility. AT&T was a major sponsor of the event.
“I knew about Cafe Momentum, and it’s an interesting idea, so I wanted to check it out,” he said.
Brown, now a commentator for ABC News, had confided to me ahead of the show that he was leaning toward Cafe Momentum because he has a soft spot for causes with a young people’s bent.
“Some of the root causes of what I’ve seen for 33 years as a Dallas cop can be solved through social entrepreneurship,” he said. “So I want to encourage that any way that I can. Hopefully, Dallas can be a bigger hub for this type of engagement. A big part of our democracy is capitalism.”
But Underwood swayed the judges with her plans to scale up her successful nonprofit jewelry business that employs women trying to escape poverty.
Akola instantly became one of Neiman Marcus’ best-selling brands when the luxury retailer added the collection to its jewelry cases and online last fall.
“In our first season at Neiman’s, we were able to employ 100 new women in Dallas who came out of poverty at a $15-an-hour living wage,” said Underwood, who started Akola 13 years ago when she was a 19-year-old sophomore at Southern Methodist University. “Neiman’s is doubling its business with us this year. And as a nonprofit, that means that 100 percent of our profits are reinvested in our social mission of combining community infrastructure, skills training, dependable employment and provide social programs to transform women who care for an average of seven kids in their homes.”
Give her $100,000 — $75,000 from the judges and $25,000 from the audience — and she pledged to triple the money through amped-up digital marketing.
“We can turn $100,000 conservatively into $300,000 in direct sales,” she said. “We can empower another 100 women within our city who are currently at risk.”
Wagner said she got his vote because Underwood has built a business that can be scaled and replicated. “That’s what sold me. She was dynamite, and her presentation was fantastic.”
“She has an amazing plan,” agreed Venz Box, who is among the most followed fashion bloggers in the nation. “We talk about generational poverty. She’s been able to make an impact. And it’s really impressive that she’s gotten her jewelry into Neiman’s. That’s not an easy get at all.”
Underwood, who came off as Xena the warrior princess from start to finish of her presentation, admitted afterward that she was sick to her stomach with anxiety before making her pitch.
“I’m just so proud of our women and all the work that they’ve done to bring us here,” Underwood said as she headed back on stage for photos. “I’ve just come along for the ride. I saw our women and felt their energy and thought, ‘I’ve got to give it my all for them.’ ”
Vote for Bonton
Babcock landed the audience’s $25,000 for Bonton Farms, an urban farming initiative in South Dallas. He used social media to get the farms’ supporters to show up and vote.
Among those was Mary Spilman, a retired retailing executive recruiter.
“I love Bonton’s story,” she said. “It’s fabulous. It’s a special place.”
Babcock plans to use the largesse to help build the Market at Bonton Farms, a neighborhood market serving low-cost breakfast and lunch, and health and wellness programming.
“The best way to eat an elephant is one bite at a time,” he said. “As a former executive, one of my goals is to show that once we get them [the farm and the market] up and running, they’re a sustainable business. We need to model that so that we can replicate it successfully.”
Proceeds from the event benefited GroundFloor, United Way’s mentordriven accelerator program that awards seed funding in promising social ventures working to overcome stubborn problems in education, income and health.
The five OneUp contestants were chosen through GroundFloor for being among the most promising social pioneers in North Texas.
Also making their way into the Heart Tank were Keven Vicknair, executive director of Equal Heart, which redirects healthy, fresh food destined for the dumpster and delivers it directly to families in need, and Bridgette Gray, executive vice president for Per Scholas, which provides tuition-free technology training and professional development for the down and out.
Sponsors and ticket sales more than covered the $100,000 prize money and event costs, Sampson said. And the tally is still adding up with an online auction.