In a year that has been particularly difficult for small businesses, one of the programs at last week’s Radically Rural summit offered promise.
Radically Rural, which is co-hosted by The Sentinel and the Hannah Grimes Center for Entrepreneurship, a Keene nonprofit, has given rural community members an opportunity to discuss their shared challenges since 2018. As part of its focus on entrepreneurship, the annual summit includes the final round of the Hannah Grimes Center’s PitchFork Challenge, in which entrepreneurs propose their business ideas to a panel of local business leaders.
On Thursday, contestants vied for two prizes worth a total of $11,000, provided by the N.H. Business Finance Authority, according to Sara Powell, program director at the Hannah Grimes Center. Frisky Cow Gelato and Little Lantern Pediatric Sleep Consulting won the prizes.
Powell said the competition began in early August with five businesses competing for $10,000 available to develop a new service and three others seeking a $1,000 grant to pursue an innovative idea. That field winnowed to four in the former category and just one in the latter after a first round on Aug. 19 and a semifinal round on Sept. 3, she said.
Despite its competitive structure, Powell emphasized that the event helps contestants develop their proposals and entrepreneurial skills, with the judges and Hannah Grimes Center staff providing input after each round.
“Pitching your business in the standard, corporate setting is one thing, but [for] small businesses in rural communities, it’s really about being able to hone … your reason for being in business and [being] able to communicate that,” she said. “… The opportunity to get feedback on your business in that way, I think is just really valuable.”
Linda Rubin, owner of Frisky Cow Gelato in Keene, captured the $10,000 prize on Thursday to finance a larger and more energy-efficient milk pasteurizer, which she said will double her gelato output.
“One of the most important things I learned about myself and my business from the PitchFork Challenge is the importance of asking for help,” Rubin, a Keene resident, told The Sentinel in an email. “There are so many great people and resources in our community waiting to help out.”
Other contestants in the category included Chris Dubriske of LumenMesh, a Keene luminaire manufacturer, who proposed adjustable lighting to create various ambiances, and Wangene and Mel Hall of Global Village Cuisine in Windsor, Vt., who pitched allergy-friendly food with African flavors.
Margit Foster, who founded Little Lantern Pediatric Sleep Consulting last month, took home the $1,000 prize.
Foster said staff at the Hannah Grimes Center suggested joining the PitchFork Challenge after she requested entrepreneurial advice from the organization in August. She registered just five days before the first round.
“I didn’t have a lot of time to prepare for the first pitch,” Foster said.
But she integrated feedback from the judges and staff members into the presentation of her business, which helps parents develop healthy sleeping habits for their children.
Foster, who has a 15-month-old son and also operates a day care at her Keene home, said she has worked with five families so far and can assist up to two clients at a time. She noted that she would like to generate more demand for her services and would consider hiring another consultant, if needed.
To attract clients, Foster, who is certified by the Family Sleep Institute as a child sleep consultant, plans to use the prize money to improve her website and branding as well as to expand her advertising efforts.
“A lot of parents don’t even know what a sleep consultant is or that it’s a thing that’s available,” she said. “… The $1,000 really helps me get the word out.”
In addition to the prize money, Foster said that participating in the PitchFork Challenge helped hone her presentation skills.
“Public speaking is actually really hard for me,” she said. “… It’s an important part of what I’ll be doing with my business, so that was a really great part of the experience, as well.”
Brittany Migneault, who founded The Bread Shed, a Keene bakery, in 2011 and served as one of the competition’s five judges, said she also struggled with public speaking early in her entrepreneurial career.
Noting that “it’s really hard at first” to start a business, Migneault said the judges offered diverse suggestions, including the use of physical props to aid contestants’ pitches, in their feedback sessions. She added that Steve Savage of Vsquared Guitar Systems, who proposed an electric guitar innovation, was particularly successful in applying their suggestions that he make the pitch more accessible to people who are not familiar with guitars.
Although Savage and several others did not win the prize money, Migneault said their pitches improved significantly throughout the competition.
“I feel like the people that didn’t win almost … gained just as much as the people that did win because everyone was able to learn so much from this process,” she said. “If they decide to utilize some of these skills going forward, I think they’ll be really beneficial.”
Powell said the connections that participants develop with each other can be valuable as they grow their businesses. Some of them will also continue using resources for small businesses at the Hannah Grimes Center, such as its Startup Lab, a seven-week program that offers marketing, finance and organizational advice to entrepreneurs, she added.
Migneault encouraged entrepreneurs to participate in the center’s PitchFork programs that it runs outside of Radically Rural, which she said offer valuable knowledge, even without prize money. She added that, as a judge, it was rewarding to reflect on her own experience and share expertise.
“I’ve definitely faced some of the challenges they’re facing, and it was really cool to see how much I’ve learned in the past 10 years,” Migneault said. “… It felt really good to … feel like I had something to offer these candidates.”