The big pitch: Chain Reaction semifinalists to showcase their companies for judges Thursday

More than seven weeks after Greater Cleveland Partnership’s (GCP) Council of Smaller Enterprises (COSE) announced on Monday, Oct. 24 that 20 businesses would advance to the semifinals of Cleveland Chain Reaction, those businesses have spent time at a bootcamp at JumpStart, getting tips on presenting their businesses to judges in the finals.

<span class="content-image-text">Megan E. Kim, executive director of COSE</span>Megan E. Kim, executive director of COSE“We are looking forward to the Cleveland Chain Reaction pitch days,” says Megan E. Kim, executive director of COSE and senior vice president, membership development and marketing at GCP. “Our entrepreneurs have completed a bootcamp hosted by JumpStart where business experts have advised them on how to successfully pitch their business, create a business plan, place value on their business and appropriately invest capital to take their business to the next level.”

The semifinalists are preparing to give their business pitches to a panel of judges tomorrow, Thursday, Dec. 8 and Friday, Dec. 9 from 8 a.m. to 12:30 p.m., at the GCP offices. a neighborhood economic development project and pitch competition.

The semifinalists will have 20 minutes to showcase their businesses to a panel of six judges, who will evaluate the businesses based on their stories, growth strategy, financials, use of funds and overall presentation.

Our judges are eager to see how these entrepreneurs will take what they have learned, along with the feedback they have received from the experts, and apply it to the competition,” says Kim.

<span class="content-image-text">Kenneth L. Wilson, GCP’s senior manager, minority business growth</span>Kenneth L. Wilson, GCP’s senior manager, minority business growthThe businesses with the three highest scores will win. First place will receive $40,000, second place will receive $20,000, and third place will receive $10,000.

“As a small-business owner who built a business from nothing into a thriving business for 25 years, I have the utmost respect for all of the entrepreneurs participating in the Cleveland Chain Reaction pitch competition,” says Kenneth L. Wilson, GCP’s senior manager, minority business growth, who will also serve as one of the judges. “I’d be honored to work for any of these innovative business leaders.”

In addition to Kim and Wilson, this year’s judges include Patty Ajdukiewicz, JumpStart principal for small business advising and capital; Angel R. Rodriguez, KeyBank senior vice president and business banking sales leader; Rachel Trem, MAGNET marketing manager; and Jason M. Russell, Bedrock Cleveland vice president of operations and leasing.

To prepare for the showcase and pitch competition, FreshWater asked the judges for some insight into how they will assess the 20 semifinalists.

Here are the questions we asked and their answers:

1. What are you looking for in these entrepreneurs?
Jason M. Russell, Bedrock (JR): I’m looking for local businesses with a unique product and service offering that can also fulfill everyday needs. As part of the team at Tower City, we’re interested to attract a variety of tenants to ensure that we are not only a central shopping destination, but also where the public can grab necessities on-the-go or experience a variety of events and activations.
We were introduced to a number of stellar businesses through Cleveland Chain Reaction, and I look forward to hearing from the impressive entrepreneurs we get to meet this year.

Rachel Trem, MAGNET (RT): I am looking to find entrepreneurs who are dedicated to providing a true service to their customer/client as well as the area where they are based. Ultimately, when you’re an entrepreneur running a business in a neighborhood, you become more than a provider of a specific product or service; you become a resource, icon and reference for the whole community in which you are based. Your work is going to extend beyond the tangible idea you’re creating.

Angel R. Rodriguez, KeyBank (AR): I amlooking for driven leaders who are delivering a unique product or service to Consumers and Businesses creating opportunities to advance their position in the region.  

Patty Ajdukiewicz, JumpStart (PA): We look for entrepreneurs who have a clear idea on how they want to scale their business and have thought about how the program and award funding will help them get there. Often, they’ve already taken their business as far as they can but are limited due to lack of capital.

Additionally, we are looking for business owners who are thinking beyond their own venture and considering their impact on the community. Those who are giving back and involving other local small businesses.

<span class="content-image-text">Patty Ajdukiewicz, JumpStart</span>Patty Ajdukiewicz, JumpStart2. What is your go-to question to entrepreneurs looking for investors?
RT: Who is your primary customer? So often people say ‘everyone’ or give a broad market as an answer, but rarely does an entrepreneur have resources to go after a huge market nor is their product useful so generally. Entrepreneurs need to target a clearly defined customer who can be reached within their marketing budget.

AR: How do you plan to deploy the capital?

PA: What is the desired end-goal for your business and why are you looking to partner with an investor (connections in the industry, capital, etc.)?

3. What traits do you look for in a person making a pitch?
RT: Warmth, sincerity, connectability, focus, and willingness to put in the work needed to succeed.

PA: We want to see entrepreneurs who are confident and comfortable talking about their business. The pitch isn’t about selling a product but showcasing yourself as an expert who understands the industry, the market, the competition, etc.
4. What do you hope this group learned at boot camp?
AR: How to take an idea, create a product and sell it to make a profit!

PA: We want participants to know there are other entrepreneurs out there facing similar challenges. It’s important to leverage the resources available and to share information with other small business owners. We can grow collectively if we discuss our struggles and support each other.
5. What are the magic words or key phrases that make you think an entrepreneur is going to go far?
RT: Acceptance of feedback. Being an entrepreneur is tough, and they wear so many hats. But sometimes they need to remove all the hats, look at your idea from the outside and just be coachable—open to insights from people with other expertise will help with your success.

AR: Plan, People, Profit.

PA: I’m encouraged by an entrepreneur whose pitch isn’t tied to a narrow request, result or target market and they are open to going as far as they can with their business.

<span class="content-image-text">Angel R. Rodriguez, KeyBank</span>Angel R. Rodriguez, KeyBank6. What are the key components you look for in a solid pitch?
JR: For me, a solid pitch needs to consist of three elements: First, I want to hear about your idea or product quickly and succinctly, and how it is different from other products in the market, or how it fits into a niche by providing a market solution. Second, I want to understand the entrepreneur’s backstory—how they got their start and how they made it to this point. Finally, I want to understand the business metrics—how do its goals, ambitions, and plans provide a sustainable financial model? Will they still be around in five years? Or 10?

RT: I want entrepreneurs to clearly articulate what unique value they bring to the market. What do they do better or different than someone else?


  • Solid understanding of the business model: what is the problem and what is their solution?
  • Who is the target market?
  • Who is the competitor and why is their solution better than what’s already in the market?
  • Details of their current project: what is the total cost, how they will use the grant, where is the balance coming from?
  • Why are they a competent entrepreneur worth investing in?
7. Do you already have your eye on some of these entrepreneurs? Do you think you’ll feel like you have your winner when the pitch competition is over?
PA:I’ve had the opportunity to learn a lot about the businesses through the Chain Reaction process. There are some great entrepreneurs in this cohort, so it won’t be easy, but we have tested judging criteria in place, and I’m confident we’ll have a clear winner at the end of the competition.
<span class="content-image-text">Jason M. Russell, Bedrock</span>Jason M. Russell, Bedrock8. What do you want these entrepreneurs to gain from this experience? 
JR: The Cleveland Chain Reaction experience is invaluable and offers a platform to many who may have not had this opportunity. Whether entrepreneurs win the grand prize or are simply participants, I hope they learn and earn the skills necessary to advocate for themselves and their businesses—propelling them into the next stage of growth.

AR: Beyond learning how to bring their product/service to market, the hope is that they will be able to network with other entrepreneurs, partners and advocates to bring greater success for all parties involved, bringing a greater impact the region.

PA: We want Chain Reaction participants to leverage this experience to gain significant traction on their businesses through the advising, capital and resource connections they receive. With or without the grant capital, we hope they will learn the technical skills they need to successfully grow their companies, from market validation to financial planning and projections, we want to help participants advance as savvy community business leaders.

The 20 semifinalists are:
Winners will be announced Friday, Dec. 16 at Tower City during a live “Kickin’ it with Kenny” on FOX 8 News in the Morning.

“As a judge of this competition, I’m listening for common-sense, down-to-earth explanations of how and why their product is beneficial to their intended audiences,” says Wilson. “I’m listening for the successes they’ve achieved thus far. I’m listening for their strategies for taking their companies to the next level, and as senior manager, minority business growth at Greater Cleveland Partnership, I’m looking for opportunities to support their growth any way I can.”  

Karin Connelly Rice
Karin Connelly Rice

About the Author: Karin Connelly Rice

Karin Connelly Rice enjoys telling people's stories, whether it's a promising startup or a life's passion. Over the past 20 years she has reported on the local business community for publications such as Inside Business and Cleveland Magazine. She was editor of the Rocky River/Lakewood edition of In the Neighborhood and was a reporter and photographer for the Amherst News-Times. At Fresh Water she enjoys telling the stories of Clevelanders who are shaping and embracing the business and research climate in Cleveland.