Roanoke Times: 14 local entrepreneurs to compete in ‘The Gauntlet’ business competition

Roanoke Times: Gauntlet Competition

Vinton resident Karin Shelor has called herself a drug addict, homeless and unemployed.

This weekend, sober for nearly three years, she will be called an entrepreneur as she pitches her business plan to a group to several local industry professionals.

Shelor, 58, is one of a handful of nontraditional entrepreneurs competing in the business competition based on the TV show “Shark Tank” on Saturday. She will pitch her business Kbay, in which she sells items on eBay for people who don’t have the time or the know-how to do it on their own.

Fourteen people will pitch their business plans at The Gauntlet, an event sponsored by The Advancement Foundation — a Vinton-area nonprofit. The event, to be held in Roanoke’s Grandin Village, is the foundation’s way of pushing the entrepreneurs out of the nest and motivating them to start their businesses.

The participants were in the six-month beta group of the foundation’s business incubator. The incubator began last year with the goal of helping people who haven’t owned or operated small businesses start their own, foundation founder and president Annette Patterson said.

“We really wanted to use our limited resources as an organization to help people really build their assets, rather than go make minimum wage for the rest of their lives and basically try to survive,” Patterson said. “We want to give people an opportunity to really thrive and give them the tools and break down the barriers to help them get to the next level.”

Many of the entrepreneurs volunteer or have volunteered at the Charity Cottage, a Vinton thrift store that was founded by and houses The Advancement Foundation.

Shelor calls the Charity Cottage her world.

Before she came to volunteer at the thrift store, Shelor was homeless and staying at the Rescue Mission. Before that, she said she was a drug addict, doing meth nearly every day. When she was cast out of her home because the person she was living with was arrested for drug use, Shelor realized it was time to get clean.

Now, Shelor has been at the Charity Cottage for more than two years.

“When I came here, I was in bad shape,” she said. “I was a drug addict. On the 19th, I’ll be 33 months clean. No relapses. No nothing.”

A few months ago, Shelor started selling some of the store’s items on eBay, with 40 percent of the sales going into her pocket. Saturday, she will pitch her business, in which she exclusively uses the online auction website to sell peoples’ valuables.

Shelor isn’t totally confident in her computer skills, but she said she has come a long way from mere months ago when she was technology illiterate and terrified of computers.

On occasion, she can still be heard yelling through the store for help using email, finding something on eBay, or sending pictures. If she needs help, all she has to do is ask, Shelor said.

“You got to ask or you’re never going to learn anything, and I know that makes things easier,” Shelor said.

Teaching people to ask for help when they don’t know things is one of the main goals of the business incubator, Patterson said.

The incubator included classes on basics like budgeting and creating a business plan. Each of the entrepreneurs also had small group time with local business leaders who acted as mentors. The program has about 30 business advisers to help participants.

“None of it is rocket science,” Patterson said. “It is just the matter of going through that process and not going through it alone. They have a team of people around them to support them.”

Tom Tanner, a business counselor with the Roanoke Regional Chamber, listened to the entrepreneurs’ presentations and worked individually with about four or five of them to improve their pitches.

He suggested the presentations shouldn’t be memorized or read, but should be spoken from the heart and he gave them a better idea of what the judges would want to hear.

“I think it’s the first time a lot of people are doing a presentation,” Tanner said. “The ones I worked with, where I first heard them to where they ended up, they were much improved.”

At the competition Saturday, other incubator participants will pitch business plans such as a transitional home for women, vocational training for barbering and cosmetology and a service that runs errands for busy people, those with physical disabilities or limited mobility. They are competing for cash and in-kind prizes to improve and grow their businesses.

Single mother Roma Brothers will pitch her shopping and errand service Shop 4 U at The Gauntlet. Her service is based on her years of living without a car.

Brothers struggled with not having a car until age 23. By that time she had three boys under age 3. To get groceries, prescriptions or go to a doctor’s appointment was a huge struggle.

Now, at 28 with four kids and a car, Brothers wants to make it easier for others.

“I’ve gone through all of these obstacles just raising my own boys and I just want to make it easier for others,” Brothers said. “I didn’t have that help. I want to do more.”

The foundation created its incubator program after hearing best practices from officials at other business incubators in Clifton Forge, Radford and Lexington, Kentucky.

In spring, foundation officials will start looking for new entrepreneurs to be a part of the second business incubator class and about six months later will put them through a Gauntlet competition, Patterson said.

The foundation is working to partner with Vinton to lease some of the town’s empty downtown office space. If town council members approve the plan, the town will cover rent and utilities in the health department building where the foundation would create a business development center with a classroom, conference room and office space for developing businesses.

“I think they are really willing and interested in partnering with us and leveraging who each of us are to try to bring something to the community,” Patterson said. “They have space and we have a program. It is our mission to build assets which then, in turn, benefit the entire community and benefit the town.”

Samantha Lukasiewicz

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