Grace Under Pressure

Photo by Brandon Parigo, Division of Strategic Marketing and Communications

By Grace Designs wins high-stakes Regnier Venture Creation Challenge

Emily Moon and Kelsey Carlstedt sell handmade women’s clothing online. But the way they see it, they are really in the business of hope.

Their company, By Grace Designs, is a not-for-profit organization. They work with women in Ghana and India in a business they see as a mission to educate, employ, empower and elevate women living in poverty.

On May 5, they stood before a panel of judges – all experienced entrepreneurs – at the University of Missouri-Kansas City and made their case for seed funding. Their winning presentation and business plan earned them the top prize of $20,000 in the 2017 Regnier Venture Creation Challenge.

In Ghana, according to their website, they “employ local seamstresses to educate younger artisans. Each student is given a new sewing machine and the necessary materials to become an expert in her craft. We then employ both the master seamstresses and the newer craftswomen to sew our original line,” using fabrics purchased from local markets.

In India, “we partner with Daughters of Hope to provide over 50 women with fair pay, a safe work environment, free childcare, free healthcare, financial counseling and a free daily lunch” while they recycle saris and create new outfits with “original prints inspired by the South Indian aesthetic.”

“Every social need is a business opportunity,” Moon said. They are improving the lives of the women they employ in the two countries by paying them double the prevailing wage, teaching them a marketable skill and providing opportunity by sourcing materials locally. “But what we’re doing is sustainable because we are making a profit,” she said.

Moon and Carlstedt talked business, not charity. They noted the high barriers to entry for potential competitors because of the need to build trusting relationships in local communities. Surveys of their targeted customer base showed that 90 percent would buy a product connected with a social cause, and 86 percent would tell friends and family about it.

“We’re working to solve poverty through enterprise, not aid,” Carlstedt told the judges, “We can raise the price, because we’re not just selling a product. We’re selling a story.”

Each spring, the Regnier Institute for Entrepreneurship and Innovation in the UMKC Henry W. Bloch School of Management hosts the Regnier Venture Creation Challenge, a business plan competition in which students can present new concepts to a judging panel of local investors, business leaders and entrepreneurs. The competition is open to university students in Missouri and Kansas and current Bloch School Entrepreneurship Scholars. Moon and Carlstedt are Entrepreneurship Scholars.

In its eighth year, the first-place prize was $20,000, double the amount awarded in previous years. Awards for the four finalists were:

  • First place: $20,000
  • Second place: $10,000
  • Third place: $5,000
  • Fourth place: $2,500

During the first day of the two-day event, 45 qualifying teams delivered a two-minute sales presentation to judges. That group was narrowed to 16 semi-finalists, based on the submitted business plan and performance in the presentations and venture expo; and then to four finalists.

In the challenge’s final round, teams presented a more in-depth breakdown of their venture, covering topics such as business model, competitive analysis and financial plans. They also answered additional questions from judges. The finalists were evaluated on their idea’s value proposition, market viability, financial feasibility, ability to execute, likelihood of launch and potential impact.

The other three finalist teams were:

  • Wobblrs, Roberto Camacho and Max Hasselquist, second place, $10,000
  • Wedding in a Box, Claire Cogan, third place, $5,000
  • Shadow Scout, Calvin Bingham and Carrie Bingham, fourth place, $2,500

Other Venture Creation Challenge awards included:

UMKC Community Partner Projects, First Place Award: SeudoSkull

UMKC Community Partner Projects, Second Place Award: Aware Bear

Best Undergraduate Business Plan Award: Campus Organics LLC; and Dualshift Footwear

Social Impact Award: Emerging Leaders Fellowship

Best Pitch Award: Touchtime

Best Expo Display: Nanotechnovate

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