A good pitch can take you far in business, and for a few YLAI Professional Fellows it will take them all the way to India. Aarón Bendfeldt, Frank Solorzano and Maira Peres received capital investment in their companies and invitations to the Global Entrepreneurship Summit in Hyderabad, India, after winning first, second and third place, respectively, in the YLAI Professional Fellows pitch competition held in Washington earlier this month. The three champions beat seven other finalists who had won pitch competitions in host cities where fellows participated in a 10-week exchange to study business and leadership in the United States. Bendfeldt, Solorzano and Peres stood out for their exemplary presentation skills, polished business plans and impressive performance in the early stages of growth. While each young business owner represented a different country and industry, they shared an ethos of social entrepreneurship.
First Place ($7,500): Aarón Bendfeldt
Host City: San Diego, California
Problem: After studying abroad in Norway, Bendfeldt was shocked by the lack of economic opportunities and environmental awareness back home in Guatemala.
Solution: Grønn, which means ‘green’ in Norwegian, creates handmade glassware and home decor pieces out of recycled bottles.
Social Aspect: “All of our products are manufactured by women who live in the most dangerous neighborhoods back home. We’re empowering six women to provide education and nutrition for their kids, preventing that these kids go to gangs or are involved in any other illegal activity.”
Business Model: Grønn has a business-to-business model that sells to corporations, restaurants, hotels and houseware distributors.
Performance: Grønn produces 2,200 units a month. It has recovered more than 120,000 bottles and sold over 22,000 units since 2015. This year, Grønn is projected to grow by 213 percent.
Investment: Bendfeldt wants to break into the U.S. market and needs $150,000 to scale up production. The investment will pay for exposure in a new market, training in Salesforce to introduce a subscription model for hotel and restaurant clients, and machinery to drive production costs down.
“We’re looking for funding, partners, mentors, whatever can take us to the next level because we believe this is a golden chance to change our country and actually have a sustainable impact.” — Aarón Bendfeldt, Grønn
Second Place ($5,000): Maira Peres
Business: Diosa – Mão de Obra Feminina
Host City: Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania
Problem: In Brazil, 94 percent of women have been sexually or verbally assaulted, and 72 percent of those assaults were committed by strangers. For this reason, Brazilian women feel unsafe hiring contractors to do work in their homes.
Solution: “Diosa is an online platform for promoting and empowering women contractors that work in home improvement, because if I receive a woman in my house when I need this kind of service I will feel safer.”
Social Aspect: Diosa empowers women contractors by providing a platform for them to connect with customers. Currently, only 15 percent of the civil construction market in Brazil is composed of women due to gender stereotypes.
Business Model: Diosa charges a 10 percent fee for completed services through its website. The company also offers training courses for contractors to improve their crafts.
Performance: Through its network of 48 women contractors, Diosa answers an average of eight service requests a day.
Investment: Peres is looking for investment to expand Diosa into other regions in Brazil.
“Diosa doesn’t stand only for safety. It stands also for equality and social change.” — Maira Peres, Diosa – Mão de Obra Feminina
Third Place ($2,500): Frank Solorzano
Host City: Portland, Oregon
Problem: Honduras struggles with an international perception of violence and poverty that does not truly reflect the national culture and identity.
Solution: “Sometimes words are not enough to describe how beautiful a place can be. That’s why we created Caité, a local brand that manufactures footwear in Honduras and uses graphic design to showcase all the potential that can be found in the Central American region. Every model tells a different story and promotes tourism at the same time.”
Business Model: Caité uses graphic design to customize a line of shoes to a specific market by representing its local culture through artwork. This strategy has contributed to growing sales in Guatemala, El Salvador and Costa Rica.
Social Aspect: For every new shoe collection that Caité launches, one model will contribute its profits to an NGO dedicated to conserving the culture that inspired the collection’s designs.
Performance: Caité produces an average of 700 pairs of shoes each month. It costs the company $15 to $18 to produce a pair of shoes, and they sell for $60 a pair.
Investment: Solorzano wants to produce a shoe collection for every country in Latin America.
“We’ve created a product — a shoe — that has the power to tell stories and start conversations between people who are proud of where they’re from, where they’ve been and where they’re going.” — Frank Solorzano, Caité