Positive change happens with investment.
The UMSL Diversity, Equity, & Inclusion Accelerator is a first-of-its kind program that puts underrepresented entrepreneurs at the center of a purpose-driven, university-led accelerator that begins with a non-dilutive $50,000 capital injection.
437 startups applied. Meet the 6 startups that were selected:
DEMIBLUE NATURAL NAILS & CREATIVE
Founder Background: With over 18 years in the healthcare and education worlds, it took a family tragedy for Michelle Robinson to find the best way to use her skills.
“After my mom’s experience with cancer and radiation, I was inspired to incorporate my research, healthcare experience, and love for servicing others in providing healthy manicures through the creation of my personal nail polish brand,” Robinson said. “Coupled with a desire to create a successful business and a legacy for my family, DEMIblue was born.”
With her line of vegan-friendly nail polishes and nail services that skip the acetone and drills, Robinson operates on the principles of creating healthier products in a unique relationship-oriented business with its roots in social responsibility.
DEI Accelerator Impact: Robinson was introduced to industry leaders who helped her streamline her product packaging and update her website as a first step toward a brand refresh that will position her for national distribution in the future. The $50,000 grant allowed her to secure warehouse space, grow her inventory, purchase liability insurance, and update her technology. Faculty provided hands-on support in setting up new financial software, executing a supply chain audit, and implementing new infrastructure. DEMIblue's intern helped to implement analytics and inventory tracking tools. Robinson plans to use her remaining funds to expand her marketing efforts.
Founder Background: After graduating from DeSmet Jesuit High School and losing a scholarship while studying chemical engineering at Howard University, Akeem Shannon’s determination drove him to learn on-the-job in corporate America.
Despite finding success in sales at large telecom companies and being recruited by Square, he still had the entrepreneurial itch. In 2017, with the help of his uncle — a NASA engineer — Shannon developed the Flipstik, a customizable kickstand for smartphones that enables simple, hands-free use for just about any smartphone function. Shannon developed Flipstik’s adhesive by using NASA research, and has gotten the attention of luminaries like Snoop Dogg and The Sharks on ABC’s Shark Tank.
“We are right on the edge of huge growth potential but we need to make a few key hires and investments to ensure this growth happens and is sustained,” Shannon said. “This program will allow us to build out production facilities in St. Louis as well as hire full-time content creation and digital marketing experts to ensure our direct-to-consumer business thrives.”
DEI Accelerator Impact: Flipstik grew sales from 30,000 units to 50,000 units sold during the program. Shannon was introduced to a local 3D printer moulding firm for rapid prototyping. He build a relationship with a new representative firm for big-box distribution in stores like Target, Best Buy, and Walmart. With the help of their intern, Flipstik generated nearly 100 custom designs for a TikTok-centered influencer campaign. Their team also connected with new customers, raised awareness of the corporate offerings, received valuable insight on potential marketing strategies, and expanded their team using funding awarded through the Accelerator. They went on to hire in-kind partner Thompson Coburn for legal services.
HERU URBAN FARMING
Founder Background: A fourth-generation farmer, Tyrean Lewis is the founder and CEO of Heru Urban Farming. Lewis’ goal, in his own words, is to “bring healthy, sustainable produce to those who need it the most. Heru Urban Farming provides sustainable, healthy food options for food apartheid communities.”
With a BS in Physical Education and an MS in Management, Lewis’ work goes beyond growing produce. Heru Urban Farming also provides cooking classes, hands-on training for growers, health education, herbal remedies, and the rebirth of togetherness within the community.
“I want to provide jobs for individuals living in the community [near] the business,” said Lewis. “I am providing and will continue to provide classes and training on everything that has to do with food. I really want to change the atmosphere by bringing positive energy and promoting inclusion.”
Lewis hopes to purchase land, build a farmers’ market, and “bring life to the community, a sense of belonging, confidence, positive vibes, creativity, and a place where people can learn and heal.”
DEI Accelerator Impact: The UMSL DEI Accelerator helped Lewis grow his team to include two new full-time employees, purchase farm insurance, hire a business accountant, and purchase key equipment including high quality tools, a BCS Machine tractor, and a caterpillar tunnel that allows Heru to extend its growing season. Heru was connected with Urban Strategies and pursued multiple collaborative projects. During the program, local media coverage helped Heru sell out its CSA subscription program.
George Holmes, PhD and Keiry “Katie” Moreno Bonnett
Founder Backgrounds: After graduating from Missouri University of Science and Technology, Dr. George Leno Holmes Jr. and Keiry “Katie” Moreno Bonnett used their knowledge and research to develop a new prototype for a new way of landscaping: robotic lawnmowers.
With a PhD in Robotics, Dr. Holmes led a team in conducting a cross-country study of the commercial professional landscaping industry. As a mechanical engineer, Bonnett’s research focused on sensors, data acquisition, networking, and algorithm implementation. Together they co-founded Hire Henry, where they look to provide services with their proprietary new technology that will change the face of the modern landscaping business.
“Landscaping companies cannot grow due to unreliable labor for repetitive jobs such as mowing,” said Dr. Holmes, who earlier this year won a University of Missouri System Entrepreneur Quest Accelerator award. “Our robotic lawnmowers enable landscaping companies to grow – hiring more people in the community for sales, management, administration, and design.”
DEI Accelerator Impact: With $50,000, Holmes and Bonnett redesigned a beta prototype that allowed them to target a soft launch in Summer 2021. They were introduced to a local maker space that converted freehand sketches to CAD drawings and 3D printed prototypes, saving thousands of dollars and accelerating product development by several weeks. Mentorship from other hardware entrepreneurs allowed them to fine tune their business strategy, which helped them win the AI/Robotics vertical in the 2021 Hardware Cups Pitch Competition.
ST. LOUIS ASSEMBLY PROS
Eric Love & Darren Williams
Founder Backgrounds: Eric Love brings ten years of supply chain and logistics management to his company, St. Louis Assembly Pros. What started as a job as an associate for a local furniture store has grown into a company that specializes in ready-to- assemble furniture, offering services to moving and relocation services, and operating Assembly On Demand — a third-party moving service.
Darren Williams, the co-founder of St. Louis Assembly Pros, is a data analyst lead by day and an ambitious entrepreneur by night. With a BS in Management Information Systems and an MA in Information Technology Management, Darren believes that “data is king” and uses his background to make informed business decisions.
Both Love and Williams are deeply invested in the community, donating time and resources to organizations that provide food, clothing, and services to people coping with domestic violence while providing scholarships to college-bound students in need.
“We hope to be a gleaming face of this great opportunity and show that we are more than capable of producing positive results in both our business and the local community,” said Love.
DEI Accelerator Impact: Love and Williams connected with peers, mentors, and potential business partners; expanded their team; purchased an additional service vehicle; worked with an intern to launch video content; and gained critical insight from Thompson Coburn that helped them improve their vendor contracts. They also were introduced to a technology consultant who automated back-end order processing, increasing efficiency and scalability. Additionally, Love and Williams re-branded from STL Assembly Pros to Assembly on Demand with an eye on scaling nationally, and they enrolled in UMSL's PMP certification class to set the organization up for success as it continues to grow.
THE FATTENED CAF
Darren Young and Charlene Lopez-Young
Founder Backgrounds: Darren Young and Charlene Lopez-Young entered the food business three years ago with The Fattened Caf, a Filipino barbecue project, after years of community development and nonprofit management. Darren serves as the executive director of Young Life, an organization that provides teams of mentors to city teens. Until recently, Charlene worked as a Strategic Administrator and Data Analyst, leaving to operate The Fattened Caf full-time while running a mentoring program for teen mothers.
The couple has set their sights on bringing their multiple roles together under one umbrella concept: “We hope that we create space for first-generation Filipino-Americans and Filipino immigrants in our community to feel at home. We have a mission for our business: to love food but to always love people more. At the heart of the Fattened Caf is a social mission called YESTL — Youth Equity Saint Louis — where we hope to hire St. Louis high school students as managers for the business as we expand and grow our operations.”
DEI Accelerator Impact: With $50,000, Young and Lopez-Young expanded R&D efforts, invested in photography and branding services, purchased new equipment, and established a relationship with a new co-packer to pivot from a restaurant model to a scalable sausage business. The Fattened Caf has now received USDA approval of their signature Longganisa sausages, which became available in Schnucks locations in July 2021. The Fattened Caf also received local and regional media coverage during the program.