Entrepreneurship contest season heats up with big money, new opportunities and a Shark

Daymond John interacts with audience members after his talk at the American Entrepreneurship Award launch at Miami Dade College’s Idea Center.
Daymond John interacts with audience members after his talk at the American Entrepreneurship Award launch at Miami Dade College’s Idea Center.

A new contest for early-stage Miami-Dade entrepreneurs used some celebrity magic to draw a standing room only audience to its American Entrepreneurship Award launch event: Daymond John.

The Shark Tank star entertained and inspired the audience with his rags-to-riches story: He started making urban streetwear while working at Red Lobster. He opened FUBU in 1989 and had to close it three times over the next three years because he ran out of capital. But his passion, and FUBU’s many fans, powered him forward: Today it’s a $6 billion enterprise.

Today, of course, John, who is the author of the new book The Power of Broke, has invested in scores of companies through Shark Tank, including South Florida companies Three Jerks Jerky and AquaVault, and he rolls up his sleeves and working closely with the companies. “The Sharks all feel we are a very small part of a very huge [entrepreneurial] movement,” said John, noting that Shark Tank is one of the top shows watched by kids 5-15 and one of the top shows parents watch with kids. “We’re a part of something that will help the next generation.”

John will be a celebrity judge for the AEA award, a new annual contest offered by Libra Group and Miami Dade College’s Idea Center. It’s open for applications at until April 29. The winner receives up to $25,000 as well mentorship and support services. In addition, Miami Dade College students will also be eligible for a separate $2,500 MDC award.

For some entrepreneurs, contest money is the new seed capital.

Opportunities abound. There are about a half-dozen contests and pitch events the next couple of weeks in South Florida, most dangling prizes of $20,000 to $50,000 and mentorship.

On Thursday, Citi Community Development, Village Capital and Florida International University kicked off a Miami Fintech Forum. About 15 financial technology startups were selected to participate in a yearlong program in which they will get help through education, mentorship and access to capital from the Small Business Development Center at FIU as well as experts from Citi and Village Capital. The Forum on Thursday included a pitching event, in which the companies took part in a full day of coaching and mentoring at, and in the evening 11 of the companies pitched to the crowd and were questioned by an expert judging panel.

Through votes of the audience and fellow entrepreneurs in their cohort, two teams were awarded $10,000 grants: DocuVital, a service to organize, automate and store vital information for end-of-life planning, pitched by CEO Joel Brown, and VestMunity, opening the real estate investing market to everyday people through crowdfunding, pitched by founder Yemani Mason. The other companies selected to pitch were: FlyScan, Gradvisor, MedXoom, Mosaic Money, OneCloud, Qbit Solutions,, Settleitsoft and Tip N’ Go.

Natalie Abatemarco, managing director of Citi Community Development and Inclusive Finance, explained there would be more events and opportunities for these companies to raise capital because the partnership with Village Capital will open a lot of doors. The idea behind this venture is to reach out to the community with a strong anchor partner in FIU and level the playing field for entrepreneurs in underserved communities. Citi is also running programs in San Francisco and New York focusing on education technology and health-tech.

“We want to help businesses to scale and help get communities the resources they need in order to survive, to thrive and really revitalize,” she said.

During the week of Feb. 15, there will be pitch contests held in connection with Black Tech Week, including one from PowerMoves, a new to Miami program for entrepreneurs of color. That contest will award a $25,000 prize.

At SUP-X: The Startup Expo in Fort Lauderdale, 15 South Florida startups are among 50 globally that will be competing for a $50,000 prize, said Bob Fitts of the Gold Coast Venture Capital Association that is putting on this conference with partners at the Broward County Convention Center Feb. 16-17. Five of the companies will be chosen to pitch on stage at SUP-X for the big money, and all 50 can exhibit at the conference. Coming up in April will be eMerge Americas Startup Showcase, another amazing opportunity for entrepreneurs.

Even youngsters are getting into the contest spirit. This week Verizon announced that a team of seventh-graders from Pine Crest School in Fort Lauderdale took home a $20,000 grant, tablets, and mentorship from MIT to develop their social entrepreneurial concept, an app for identifying and tracking concussion risk. A team from Krop Senior High won $5,000 and Best in State honors for its app to help the deaf in the Verizon Innovative App Challenge. Read more about the winners here. Meanwhile, student teams from the Network for Teaching Entrepreneurship are working on their business plans and finalists will present their concepts on the stage of eMerge Americas, competing for funding to make their dreams come true.

As Libra Group CEO George Logothetis said when announcing the AEA, it’s all about empowering the underdog, and giving many more people the opportunity and resources to develop their ideas.

Nancy Dahlberg; 305-376-3595; @ndahlberg.

Advice from the Shark Daymond John

At the American Entrepreneurship Award event, Daymond John shared this advice:

▪ Successful entrepreneurs take affordable next steps.

▪ Surround yourself with like-minded friends who won’t let you quit. Seek out mentors from among the successful business people you know.

▪ Responsibility must be taken, not given (advice from his mom).

▪ Success is all about tapping into a movement. It’s about the following you create with your own authentic voice. It’s not the money that will get you there (”Money just drives your problems in a limousine”). And it is all about the hustle.

▪ What separates the rock stars from the rest on Shark Tank? Proof of concept first and formost, the companies already have proved customers want the product and they have some sales. Second, the founders have failed more times than they have succeeded; they are so excited about what they are doing, they would do it for free the rest of their life if they could. And third, the business must be scalable.