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Nicklaus: Minority firms struggle in St. Louis. UMSL accelerator hopes to close the gap

Nicklaus: Minority firms struggle in St. Louis. UMSL accelerator hopes to close the gap

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The founders of robotic lawn mower startup Hire Henry weren’t sure where to build the business.

St. Louis was George Holmes Jr.’s hometown, but he and co-founder Keiry Moreno Bonnett wondered if they should choose someplace with a more established technology industry.

Then they heard about the University of Missouri-St. Louis’ new diversity, equity and inclusion accelerator. They applied and won one of six $50,000 grants that were announced Wednesday.

Their location decision was made. “We had started looking at where we should go,” Moreno Bonnett, a native of Colombia, said this week. “When we saw this program pop up, we knew this was perfect for us.”

In addition to the cash, each winner gets an UMSL student as a paid intern, an experienced businessperson as lead mentor and a series of business development classes.

Michelle Robinson looks forward to tapping into UMSL’s network of experts for DemiBlue, her natural nail polish startup. “My goal is to use the resources, the mentoring and the guidance to really accelerate my business,” she said. “The goal is to expand DemiBlue nationally and hopefully worldwide.”

The program was created to narrow an entrepreneurship gap that’s especially wide in St. Louis. Nationally, Blacks and Latinos represent 28% of the population but just 8% of business owners. A Lending Tree analysis placed St. Louis last among 50 large metro areas for the success of Black-owned firms.

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“We knew that this population of founders is consistently underfunded, and we wanted to change that,” said Monique Bynum, the accelerator’s program director.

Mentors will include executives of Ameren, Edward Jones and Express Scripts, the accelerator’s three corporate sponsors.

If the accelerator’s first cohort does well, the university hopes to raise enough money to make it an ongoing program. It knows the need is great: UMSL got 437 applications for the six slots.

Those who made the cut are happy to have such an opportunity in their hometown. Akeem Shannon, who successfully promoted his Flipstik last month on the TV show “Shark Tank,” said he also wondered if he would have to leave St. Louis to realize the business’ full potential.

Then he won a $50,000 Arch Grant and the UMSL competition. “Now we’ll be able to keep the business in St. Louis, be able to grow here and contribute to the community,” he said. “This is going to be a big deal.”

Flipstik uses an adhesive to attach a mobile phone to any flat surface for hands-free selfies. Shannon said he hopes an UMSL intern can help professionalize his social media and marketing efforts.

In addition to DemiBlue, Flipstik and Hire Henry, the accelerator winners are Heru, an urban farm; The Fattened Caf, a Filipino barbecue popup; and St. Louis Assembly Pros, which assembles furniture for homeowners and businesses.

It’s a mix of inventions with international potential and Main Street startups that mainly want to serve local residents.

What they have in common are St. Louis roots, creative ideas and a drive to succeed.

They’re also at critical stages in their growth. St. Louis Assembly Pros is moving into its first warehouse, Fattened Caf is looking for a commercial space where it can make more Filipino sausage, and Hire Henry is taking its robotic mower, developed as an academic project at Missouri University of Science and Technology, to commercial landscapers for testing.

Holmes hopes he and Hire Henry will eventually inspire future entrepreneurs. “This is a project St. Louis can be extremely proud of,” he said. “It’s homegrown and it’s a very cool technology.”

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