The excitement was palpable at the Dream Big Grow Here competition in Cedar Rapids, but nobody was more excited than the well-dressed man with the huge smile and the flag of Cameroon.
Mekinda Mekinda’s experience coming to America under a U.S. State Department scholarship provided inspiration for Ready to Go in America!, which won the $5,000 first prize. Mekinda stole the show with his high-energy pitch, which brought smiles and laughter.
“You’re going to have a company that will solve a worldwide problem!” said Mekinda, whose full name is so long he saves it for legal documents. “We’re going to make Iowa so proud!”
Ready to Go in America! plans to develop a pocket guide and mobile app to help international students understand American culture and avoid culture shock.
“When you have it in a book, you will be able to avoid paying taxes, urrr… fines,” Mekinda said, to laughter from the crowd.
The venture is a partnership among Mekinda, University of Iowa senior Jeff Owens, who is studying informatics and art, and Bobby Schlicting, an entrepreneur and farmer from Vinton.
Mekinda, 34, is the manager of a communications company in Cameroon’s capitol. While studying agricultural methods under the state department scholarship, he’s encountered his share of cultural issues, but said much of the inspiration for the business venture came from his conversations with other international students who have struggled even more.
“I was excited,” Mekinda said. “This was my second (business pitch) so I was relaxed and I wanted to make it great, make it something different.”
Ready to Go in America! plans to use the money to research its publications, which it will translate into several major languages. It will advance to the statewide Dream Big Grow Here competition in March to compete for $10,000 more.
The first-time event was a success in terms of attendance and crowd response, filling the big upper level of Dublin City Pub, one of Cedar Rapids’ larger bars.
At least one other business pitch was a clear favorite with the crowd and judges, although all five won praise from the five-member judging panel.
Eli Shepherd, a 17-year-old high school student, pitched his longtime dream for Foliage, a venture to produce environmentally friendly skateboards using locally grown, Sustainable Forestry Initiative-certified, wood. It would emphasize productions of longboards and also cruisers, which have gained popularity with University of Iowa students.
The venture would be organized as a cooperative to let hardworking members receive equipment and apparel as rewards, and would establish one charitable funds to support environmental causes and another to support local causes in the Iowa City area.
Judges liked the idea so well that three of them — Josh Bass of Moped U, Heather Smith Friedman of deNovo Alternative Marketing, and Tami Young of The Skywalk Group, donated $100 each to help Foliage buy a bottle jack press needed to produce skateboards.
Thirty-three entrepreneurs participated in the contest, and Thursday’s competition gave five finalists a chance to show their stuff. The three other finalists were clusterFlunk, a online education collaboration platform initially targeting University of Iowa students, Iron Leaf Press, a Mount Vernon design and letterpress printing studio, and Portrait Community, a photography-based marketing concept from Cedar Rapids-based Concept Studios.
The event was held in collaboration with Tech Brew!, a monthly technology meetup group, with support from the Corridor Business Alliance, University of Northern Iowa and others.
Amanda Styron of Seed Here Studio, which organized the event, said the participation and enthusiasm about entrepreneurship made the contest “an inspiring project to be part of.”