Shock would be the best way to describe Tasha Roberts Jnofinn’s reaction after learning she won a $10,000 Service Category grand prize at the Liftoff Houston Pitch Day 2022 Startup Business Plan Competition.
“My heart was racing, and I couldn’t breathe,” she said. “I had so many sleepless nights, but it was worth it in the end.”
Adi Aggarwal, a maritime industry executive, also won a $10,000 grand prize in the competition’s Innovation Category, and the realization of what he accomplished began to sink in moments after his name was announced.
“I wasn’t thinking about it, to be honest. I was just looking at pitching and doing my best, and then taking the next step,” he said.
What was once a dream has now become a reality for both Jnofinn and Aggarwal, who were two of the nine finalists competing for a grand prize of $10,000 in one of three categories: product, service and innovation. Hannah Le, owner and CEO of RE.STATEMENT online marketplace for creating new clothing from existing or used materials, was the grand prize winner in the Product Category.
Now in its 10th year, the competition is co-administered by the Houston Public Library and the Mayor’s Office of Business Opportunity. Capital One Bank sponsors the annual event.
Pearl Cajoles, an external affairs manager for OBO, said this was the first time since 2019 that Liftoff Houston Pitch Day was held in person. The competition was held in a completely virtual format due to the COVID outbreak, she said, and was conducted in a hybrid virtual/in-person format in 2021.
“We were very happy to be back 100% in person this year and see all the families being able to support the finalists and see reactions as they are picked for a winner,” Cajoles added.
Liftoff Houston aims to empower Houstonians to start their own businesses and contribute to the growth and sustainability of the Houston economy through business literacy education and mentorship. To be selected as a finalist, contestants attend a series of required workshops and mentorship sessions, and all are required to complete a business plan.
Cajoles said she was unsure if the finalists would include product demonstrations with their pitches.
“Not every business will have a product, and sometimes they may still be in the prototype stage,” she said. “Those who have their physical product already made and available to show are encouraged to present them to judges as part of their pitch.”
Nine finalists were selected to pitch their business in the competition, Cajoles said, and 225 applicants qualified for the program.
The final event of the competition is Pitch Day, where three finalists each in the categories of Product, Service and Innovation pitch their business plan to a panel of judges to win $10,000. The runners-up each received a $500 prize.
The audience also selected a “Fan Favorite” and awarded the winner in each category a $500 prize.
It’s all about the pitch
What do judges look for from finalists to determine what makes a successful pitch? For Maryum Khan, who served as a judge for the service category competition, it’s the energy and passion each competitor brought with them on stage.
“It’s really exciting to look at their perspective of what they think a service should be,” said Khan, who is vice president of business banking at Capital One Bank. “Along with what’s on paper, how passionate they are go hand in hand in business, because it shows how much you believe in growing your business.”
Making a memorable pitch also helps. In 2017, Innovation Category winner Megan Eddings pitched her company, Accel Lifestyle, a fitness apparel company offers bacteria- and odor-resistant clothing. During COVID, she pivoted to use the same fabric to offer bacteria- and odor-resistant face masks that sold hundreds of thousands of units to major companies.
However, Eddings experienced a technical glitch during her presentation. Despite that glitch – and despite it being her first time to ever pitch her business – she went on to win the grand prize.
She went on to complete her pitch with grace, confidence and humor. It was a great “save,” Cajoles said.
In 2021, another winner, Alina Kravchenko of Toner Bum, brought her mother to help demonstrate her product – a patented glute and leg-toning dumbbell ergonomically designed to fit behind the back of the leg.
Alina’s mother demonstrated donkey kicks and fire hydrant exercises, resulting in her winning the Innovation Category. “The energy of both on stage warmed many hearts,“ Cajole said.
In Jnoffin’s case, the passion that led her to create her startup business has a deeper meaning. Her son Prince Troy Jnofinn was diagnosed at age 10 months with a rare genetic disorder called Glycogen Storage Disease Type 10, or GSD 10. “If he plays too hard or intensely, his muscles will break down and affect his heart and kidney. IV hydration is the main treatment for him,” she said.
She created ActIVate Drip Spa, a full-service health and wellness aesthetic center located in a 1500-square foot space in Midtown, with the purpose of provide this service at a better rate with a higher quality.
Enduring sleepless nights, she while prepping her business plan and pitch, while trying to build her own business and working a full-time job as a full-time cardiology nurse practitioner at Houston Methodist Hospital.
Jnoffin also said she had to overcome her fear of public speaking. “I’m a very shy person. When it comes to talking to individuals, I can be the best at it, but in front of crowds or a camera, I crawl into a little shell,” she said.
She said she overcame her fears by looking over the head of the judges. “I had to pretend it was just me in the room by myself,” she said.
Jnofinn said she hesitated to see the video of how she did at the competition at first but was proud of her performance when she watched it.
Aggarwal took a more nuanced approach to his presentation. As CEO and founder of Maritime XR, a company seeking to improve training in the maritime industry by making it more realistic, immersive and interactive for seafarers and the workforce, his strategy was to connect with the judges and audience.
“I’ve always believed in my vision, but now the objective was to get the judges to look at the business plan and believe in the vision as well,” he said.
Aggarwal’s business plan consisted of 25 pages. Each finalist has only four minutes to pitch their plan in front of the judges and the audience. He said the biggest challenge for him was keeping his pitch to four minutes, so he practiced a lot at home.
“I have to take the judges on this journey of how it started and how it’s going to end,” he said. “For me the key was if you can’t do it in four minutes, you’re not doing it right.”
Aggarwal said he credits his mentor for getting him ready. “My mentor was a big help in preparing me by looking at my presentation and practicing my pitch with him and giving me some fine points,” he said.
In the end, he followed his best advice to be himself.
“This is my first time competing, but each of our business propositions are unique. It’s a big honor just to be here,” he said. “We just have to be ourselves, communicate our vision to the judges and take it from there.”
Cajoles said the program also offers the Liftoff Houston Educational Pathway, which offers participants access to all of Liftoff Houston's educational and mentorship components, including a review of their business plans for those who do not meet minimum requirements to compete.