We tried it: I pitched my idea for taking Cleveland next-level at Accelerate

Back in February 2018, I was a freshly minted Cleveland boomerang—having just moved back to The Land after 16 years on the West Coast. I’d only been back in town for two months when I was invited to cover Accelerate: Citizens Make Change as FreshWater Cleveland’s new managing editor.

Held annually by the Cleveland Leadership Center, the pitch competition has been likened to a “civic ‘Shark Tank’” of sorts, awarding $25,000 in grants to ideas designed to make Northeast Ohio a more vibrant and inclusive place. I jumped at the chance to get an up-close look at all of the ideas and people going all-in to accelerate Cleveland’s momentum—and the event didn’t disappoint. From winner Tory Coats’ Teen Pop-Up Shops to Allison Lukacsy-Love’s Give Box CLE, it was clear there would be no shortage of inspiring fodder to highlight in my new job.


Turns out a lot can happen in two years—and last Thursday, Feb. 27, I was the one taking the microphone at Accelerate. Inspired by the success of people like 2017 presenter Pam Turos (of WISH Cleveland) and 2019 presenter Allison Meyer (of Never, Ever Give Up), I knew how participating in Accelerate could fast-track a fledgling concept, and I was excited to be selected as one of five finalists in the Economic Workforce & Development category.

My goal was to spread the word about Next Level CLE, an emerging networking group for local career women ages 35 and up. I founded the group last fall to connect and support women at the “next level” of their lives, families, and careers—many of whom don’t fit neatly into the “young professional” box, but are instead continuing to strive in their mid- or late careers, re-entering the workforce after raising kids, or starting a new business or professional path later in life. (Want to learn more about the group? Email me!)


The experience of pitching my idea gave me even more appreciation for how much tenacity and passion Accelerate presenters possess—not to mention their persuasive public speaking skills.

The lead-up to the event involves multiple practice and feedback sessions (including the chance to ramp up one’s stage presence with Michael Obertacz, executive director of Near West Theatre), as well guidance in fundraising via ioby. Attending a practice session helped me to refine my five-minute pitch and find a much better lede than my initial bad joke about how all things in life originate via Facebook.

Though I essentially practiced my pitch into oblivion in the days leading up to the event, I was ultimately glad I did so. It turns out making a pitch for a judging panel representing JumpStart, Oatey, Lubrizol, ECDI, and Magnet isn't for the faint of heart. (Although I did get an unintended laugh with a new line I incorporated ... thank you, practice session!) 


After learning I wasn't the winner of my category, I was able to immerse myself in the event as a participant and get inspired by the six finalists who took the main stage—from the mother-daughter team behind Blanket Blessings (which provides care packages to the homeless) to two-time Accelerate presenter Jowan Smith (who took this year's overall prize for her 1,000 Ties etiquette program for inner-city males).


Though I didn't go home with a grant, I feel even more energized around creating more networking opportunities for next-level women. And I'm buoyed by the bright ideas that are taking flight all around us in service of Cleveland—and gratified that organizations like the Cleveland Leadership Center are helping to flip the switch on those light bulb moments.

Learn more about Accelerate and how you can participate here.

Jen Jones Donatelli
Jen Jones Donatelli

About the Author: Jen Jones Donatelli

As an enthusiastic CLE-vangelist, Jen Jones Donatelli enjoys diving headfirst into her work with FreshWater Cleveland. Upon moving back to Cleveland after 16 years in Los Angeles, Jen served as FreshWater's managing editor for two years (2017-2019) and continues her work with the publication as a contributing editor and host of the FreshFaces podcast.

When not typing the day away at her laptop, she teaches writing and creativity classes through her small business Creative Groove, as well as Literary Cleveland, Cleveland State University, and more. Jen is a proud graduate of Ohio University's E.W. Scripps School of Journalism.