Start-Up Slam presenters share business ideas to address community problems — and maybe nab a cash prize

A service to bridge generational gaps and provide older people with company as they age, and a mobile nail salon — these two business ideas tied at Thursday night’s Start-Up Slam in Danville.

Jabrille Brown and Lakia Childress split the $300 prize money after receiving the same number of votes from audience members, who each paid $10 at the door to enter.

The quarterly event, modeled after a poetry slam, invites Danville residents to share their business ideas for a chance at a cash prize. It is one of the many events put on by the River District Association meant to encourage entrepreneurship in the community.

“This is the beginning event,” said Diana Schwartz, CEO of the River District Association. “Hopefully, you all latch on to a good idea here, come take our Dream Launch classes, pitch for a Dream Launch award, and open your business downtown.”

The RDA has several entrepreneurship programs, and the Start-Up Slam is the most informal, low-stakes way to share a business idea and win money. There’s also Dream Launch, a more structured program with bootcamp-style classes for aspiring business owners — all free of charge.

No business plan is required to participate in Start-Up Slam, and no strings are attached to the prize money. Schwartz said winners can use it to further their business plan, or not. And anyone over the age of 5 can share an idea.

The only requirement is that presenters offer a new idea. If someone owns an existing business, they can’t present on that unless they’re discussing an expansion idea, Schwartz said.

Nine presenters shared their ideas at the Thursday night event. Most were pitches about how to solve a problem in the community or the world.

Jabrille Brown and Lakia Childress tied for the win and split the $300 prize, presented by River District Association CEO Diana Schwartz. Both of their ideas involved serving the elderly. Photo by Grace Mamon.

Brown’s idea, a service called Grand Central Station, would connect older people with younger people to provide them with company as they age. This idea was inspired by watching her own father and aunts age, Brown said during her pitch.

“Grand Central Station will draw people out of involuntary isolation and connect them with vibrant, compassionate and kind people, also bridging the growing generation gap,” Brown said.

She referenced a study by the National Academy of Sciences that found that isolation and loneliness are associated with increased mortality. Old people and young people could prepare and share meals together, play card games and go to concerts or other activities, Brown said.

But this service wouldn’t be exclusive to older people.

“Sometimes you want to go to something and you don’t have anyone to go with,” Brown said. “If you like hard rock music and none of your friends do, when you come to our service, you’ll be able to hopefully find someone to go to a concert with you.”

Childress also focused on older people, with the potential to serve other demographics as well.

“My idea is to have a mobile nail salon,” Childress said during her pitch. “I would like to go around to the elders, because there’s a lot of elders that like that kind of treatment, but can’t get to it.”

A mobile nail salon could also visit birthday parties for young girls, she said.

“The end idea is to actually have a truck that is a true mobile nail salon,” Childress said. “People can either come out and get service in the truck, or I could go into their home and service them there.”

Childress has been doing nails since she was 13 years old, she said in an interview after the event. She’s a licensed nail technician but never wanted to open a brick-and-mortar location — a mobile salon was more appealing to her, she said.

Both Brown and Childress said they weren’t expecting to win anything. Childress said she was “just talking about something I love doing,” and Brown said she initially came to the event to hear others’ ideas.

“My husband convinced me to pitch,” Brown said. “I was just coming to listen.”

Many of the presenters were Danville natives who had ideas about how to better the community or fill a need.

Joe Newell, who grew up in Danville and now lives in Durham, North Carolina, had an idea about how to increase youth participation in sports. He said he’s troubled that fewer and fewer children are playing sports, and he emphasized the physical, mental and emotional health benefits of sports.

Another presenter, Evann Comeaux, wants to start a workout YouTube channel and eventually expand to do a live fitness class. Her pitch included her own story of overcoming childhood obesity.

“I’ve benefitted extremely from group exercise,” Comeaux said, adding that she wants to help others do the same.

Others presented ideas to expand something they already do into a bona fide business. Ashley Damian specializes in wrapping gifts inside balloons and wants to bring a gift store to the community.

“My idea is to open up a shop where customers can come to get full balloon services,” Damian said. She can wrap teddy bears, small toys and other gifts inside a balloon, and make customized balloons with popular characters like Mickey Mouse or Disney princesses, she said.

And Santanna Mimms, owner of Tiny Tribe Soft Play Adventures, also wants to expand to a brick-and-mortar location. Tiny Tribe offers mobile and rental packages with equipment and surfaces made of soft materials for kids to play on.

Right now, she said she packs up all her equipment in her van and takes it to her customers. But she’s tired of driving to Raleigh, North Carolina, for an indoor playground for her kids, she said, and she wants to open one in Danville.

Several presenters had food-related pitches.

Agnes Green shared her idea of a home-cooked buffet restaurant with traditional Southern food. She wants to serve fresh vegetables, mac and cheese, and “real cornbread with the cornmeal, not the Jiffy mix.”

Amber Hutcherson makes bouquets and flower arrangements in Hurt with Acie & Mae Farms. Her idea is to expand this business with an on-location farm store that would showcase Virginia-made wares, foods and drinks.

She also wants to partner with local restaurants and chefs to offer farm-to-table meals.

And Kelsey Witherspoon shared an idea about partnering with farmers to offer healthier and fresher food options to combat obesity.

After all nine presenters had shared, audience members voted on their favorite.

At the beginning of the event, Michael Duncan of the Small Business Development Center shared some words of advice.

Duncan is a serial entrepreneur that has started several businesses in the Danville area over the past 22 years. Some have been successful and others have not, he said.

“You have to be prepared to lose as an entrepreneur,” he said. “If you want to be in business for yourself, there is one thing you need to be successful. And that is the ability to persevere when things get tough.”

Starting a business is hard and not for the faint of heart, Duncan said. “If it was easy, everyone would do it.”

Schwartz said she was pleased with the turnout and the amount of new faces that hadn’t been at either of the previous Start-Up Slams. The more people that come, the more money the RDA can give to someone in the community, she said.

“If we could get 100 people here, we could give away $1,000,” Schwartz said.

by GRACE MAMON is a reporter for Cardinal News.