Startup competition expands to SWVA
Rural communities need extra love when it comes to additional business resources, says Kathy Deacon, vice president of business and resource development for the Vinton-based Advancement Foundation.
The foundation has been running “The Gauntlet,” a business program and pitch competition, since 2015, expanding it into Southwest Virginia this year.
Since the program is run online, it has had participants from all over the country, as well as overseas, Deacon says. While the class portion is online, it also hosts in-person stakeholder meetings and networking events.
The competition’s expanded region adds all counties from Buchanan down to Lee, across to Henry and up to Rockbridge.
“We want to uncover entrepreneurs in areas that are typically underserved. Our focus really is on rural community developments that aren’t typically in line to get lots of additional resources either at the state or the federal circles,” Deacon says.
The program provides entrepreneurs who are looking to start new businesses or expand existing ones with 10 weeks of business planning and development classes, including marketing, e-commerce and financial planning — beginning in February, with an awards ceremony in May. At the end, they turn in a business plan that is judged by a panel, and the highest ranked entrepreneurs compete in a pitch competition.
Each year, the Gauntlet program provides more than $300,000 in cash and in-kind services, including consultations with attorneys, accountants and marketing professionals, as well as website development. A general prize pool is applied to the participants based on business plan and pitch competition judging.
This year, over 100 entrepreneurs participated.
The program helped 2023 participant Dirk Moore, owner of Blue Hills Natural Food Market in Abingdon, find support in expanding into a new location. “I think whenever you have business owners who are working together, especially when they’re in proximity with one another, you learn how important it is for everybody to succeed and for your business ecosystem to do well, and that is really reinforced by the Gauntlet program,” Moore says.
Some program participants go on to make moves nationally — like Richard Mansell, a 2019 participant from Covington whose company, IVO Ltd., is valued at $10 million — but most have small Main Street businesses that are succeeding locally, Deacon says: “Once you’ve got a thriving downtown, the growth continues, and it’s creating jobs and opportunities for families to thrive.”