A St. Paul transportation startup is among 10 minority-owned businesses that will advance to the final round of a local “Shark Tank” reality TV-style competition.
Mobility 4 All was among 19 semifinalists to deliver high-stakes investor pitches Wednesday evening in the Metropolitan Economic Development Association’s inaugural $1 Million Challenge for Minority Entrepreneurs at the downtown St. Paul offices of Travelers Insurance.
The 10 finalists will enter an eight-week boot camp, where they will hone their five-minute pitches before competing for $1 million in January. Up to four winners will split the prize.
“We’re here to show that the marketplace in America can work for everyone,” MEDA CEO Gary Cunningham said. “We want to show that entrepreneurs of color are doing some fantastic things in innovative spaces, and that they’ll be the future of transformation in this country.”
The event, part of Twin Cities Startup Week, is the only minority-focused pitch competition in the U.S. to award $1 million, Cunningham said.
Although the semifinalists competing on Wednesday came from as far away as Oregon and Georgia, seven of the 10 finalists hailed from the Twin Cities metro area. A panel of 16 judges from across the U.S. evaluated the pitches.
A complete list of the finalists can be found at meda.net.
St. Louis Park-based HabitAware received the most points from the judges and was awarded a cash prize of $25,000, while Minneapolis-based Cytilife was awarded $5,000 for receiving the second-most points.
HabitAware was the winner of this year’s MN Cup competition, which is also part of Twin Cities Startup Week.
Mobility 4 All uses a mobile app tailored to the elderly and people with disabilities to offer a ride hailing service similar Uber or Lyft. However, Mobility 4 All offers a higher degree of service, helping customers into their homes and waiting for them during medical appointments.
MEDA, a Minneapolis nonprofit that provides business consulting, marketing and capital for minority business owners, held a similar invitation-only competition last year to test the concept, dividing $700,000 in prize money among four companies.
“You’ve only got a few minutes to pitch and you’ve got a lot to get through, so you’ve got to nail it,” Cunningham said. “Some of it is showmanship, but you’ve got to demonstrate that you’ve got an idea that will work.”
One of last year’s winners was Burnsville-based Casa Travel & Technologies, which also made it into Wednesday’s semifinal round of this year’s competition.
Casa’s software allows its clients — primarily non-bank financial services companies like MoneyGram — to sell airline tickets to consumers without checking accounts or credit cards, who had previously been limited to brick-and-mortar travel agencies, Casa Travel CEO Carlos Lopez said.
“You can’t stick cash in Expedia, Delta.com, etc.,” Lopez said. “The unbanked market is huge.”
Casa took home $250,000 of last year’s prize money.
“It was fantastic,” Lopez said. “It allowed us to scale, it allowed us to improve our technology and it allowed us to invest in a robust training program” for Casa clients’ employees.
Since last year’s competition, Casa has seen an 80 percent increase in sales, which Lopez credits to the funding they received from MEDA.
The other three winners from the pilot program also made it into Wednesday’s semifinal round; Minneapolis-based Vemos, which focuses on hospitality management services, was the only one of these to advance to the finals this time around.
Although the prize money, which is actually a loan funded by Opportunity Finance Network, is the primary reason companies participate in the $1 Million Challenge, Lopez and Cunningham agreed that the exposure they get from the competition also has real value.
“We’re trying to break down the barriers so these folks can be seen,” Cunningham said. “News stories about people of color are usually not about them being makers and entrepreneurs, so we’re changing that narrative.”
Cunningham noted that Minnesota’s income gap between whites and people of color is among the worst in the nation, adding that this is one way to remedy that.
“Entrepreneurship is key to closing the income gap,” he said. “We’re making an investment with this money.”