“I don’t think there’s a better time to be an entrepreneur,” Nicole Hawthorne, co-founder of Jayla’s Heirlooms, said during a recent phone call. “There are a lot of resources right now for women-owned businesses and people of color and all of these different communities.”
It’s been a little over a week since Hawthorne won the $10,000 top prize at the 53 Ideas Business Pitch Competition for her company that curates a collection of Black and Brown handcrafted dolls designed in collaboration with makers from across the globe.
Inspired by her 4-year-old daughter, Hawthorne co-founded Jayla’s Heirlooms back in November with Jayla as her business partner. The mom-and-daughter duo has sold 50 dolls in less than a year, netting nearly $4,000 in profit. Before taking home first place in 53 Ideas, they also were awarded a $10,000 grant from NC IDEA and accepted into Amazon’s Black Business Accelerator program this spring.
While raising capital from a “friends and family” network is one of the most common forms of startup funding, that initial seed money can look very different if the median wealth among racial households is considered. To add to their arsenal of resources, many entrepreneurs turn to pitch competitions and accelerators that offer ways to diversify sources of funding for their ventures and connect them to a network that often provides mentoring and training to build a successful business.
For angel investors like George Acheampong, he advises businesses to start with making it known that they’re seeking capital.
“You can’t assume that people know that you exist, and that they’re just going to come and find you and give you money,” said the financial adviser and entrepreneur whose Acheampong Acquisitions investment portfolio includes companies like Charlotte-based Freeman Capital and BatteryXchange.
Along with keeping in tune with the pitch circuit, Acheampong also sees opportunity in equity crowdfunding for Black-led startups that are creating technology to address systemic issues.
“It presents an opportunity to get people to not only invest in your company, but now if your company does perform well, the people who support you are also benefiting in the upside of what your company will do,” he said.
Rashaan Peek, director of BLKTECHCLT-Interactive, agreed that pitch competitions are a benefit in that they give founders an opportunity to learn how to articulate the story of their businesses and how to learn more about their financials. However, she said some Black-led startups miss those foundational steps because they are so focused on raising money.
“We skip all of those steps to get to the shiny object,” Peek said.
As a newer business owner, Hawthorne immersed herself in Charlotte’s entrepreneurial ecosystem to help her learn those foundational areas. She registered for the Women’s Business Center of Charlotte (WBCC) and its executive presence program. Through Innovate Charlotte’s CO.STARTERS program she learned about 53 Ideas, which is sponsored by Fifth Third Bank and hosted by South Piedmont Community College.
It takes “some superhuman power, focus and lots of prayer,” she says, to push through the lengthy process to prepare for pitch competitions. The three-month process for 53 Ideas, for example, included a series of workshops on topics — including “Customer Discovery,” “Figuring Out Your Financials” and “Developing Your Pitch” — to help contestants turn their ideas into viable businesses.
A self-described “thirsty learner,” Hawthorne, a project manager by day, spent time researching not only the other finalists but also the judges.
“I came in ready to go. The thing was, I just wanted to place, to be honest,” she said. Behind the first-place grant, runners-up received $5,000 and $2,500 for second and third place, respectively.
Hawthorne often practiced her business pitch on her husband and daughter, and she struggled at times to sound convincing, which her mini co-founder was quick to note.
“When I was practicing the pitch, [Jayla] was like, ‘Mommy, that sounds good, but you could do better,” she recalled. “Even at this young age, she can recognize when something’s good and when it’s not.”
After digesting feedback from loved ones, Hawthorne refined her presentation and went on to present in front of the three-judge panel along with the other Top 10 finalists. Hearing her company announced as the 53 Ideas winner moved Hawthorne to tears as she noted that now is the time for children of color to see themselves represented.
“When I showed [Jayla] the check, I said, ‘Hey, we won a grant for our business, and it’s for $10,000.’ She’s jumping up and down and says, ‘Wait, what are we going to do with the $10? Is it going to go to the website?’” Hawthorne laughed before correcting her daughter’s flub on the amount.
Hawthorne said half of the grant money will go toward marketing to raise brand awareness and drive customers to their website and Amazon online store. The remaining $5,000 will fund an international supply chain firm to beef up production logistics.
Jayla’s Heirlooms recently approved a prototype for its first custom doll, and Hawthorne said the company is on track for a November release, which will roll out through Amazon.
Her advice to other startups: “Be agile when people give you feedback and plug in to resources in your respective communities.”