The National Center for Disability Entrepreneurship at the Henry Viscardi Center in Albertson held its first annual PitchFest for entrepreneurs with disabilities last week.
Twelve entrepreneurs presented their businesses before a panel of judges with over $50,000 in prizes handed out.
The Audience Choice Award, a prize package of branding materials worth $10,000, was won by Little Tiger Productions, founded and led by Susan Picerno of Alexandria, Virginia. Picerno, a retired federal employee, said her aim is to increase media portrayals of people with disabilities and authors with disabilities through book and magazine publishing of their own stories.
“There are 64 million Americans with disabilities, their friends, and their family and professionals and employers that work with them,” Picerno said in her presentation. “But they are only depicted in 1% of media. Little Tiger can be the change that allows this to not be the case in the future.”
Picerno also won a mentoring package for Sharon Woods of LandUseUSA, a market research professional.
Third place and a cash prize of $2,500 went to Danimation Entertainment, founded and led by Dani Bowman of Los Angeles, California, which specializes in providing animation training to artists on the autism spectrum with camps, skill development classes and customized mentorships.
“Our goal is to improve employability by leveraging our students’ passion for animation,” Bowman said in her presentation. “We use it as a way to make a positive impact by opening doors, demonstrating possibilities and providing hope where previously there was none.”
Second place and a cash prize of $5,000 went to Lifestyle Builders, founded and led by Julie Eugene of Florida, which focuses on decor, decluttering and designing new spaces for those with disabilities.
First place and a cash prize of $6,000 was awarded to Milestones Day School and Transitions Programs, founded and led by Chief Operating Officer Alex Smith-Michaels of Massachusetts, which provides academic and therapeutic approaches for students with autism and other behavioral issues aged 7 to 22.
“I have autism and bipolar disorder,” Smith-Michaels said in her presentation. “I’ve experienced educational trauma, institutionalization and I swore another kid would never go through what I went through. Today I have a 26-year-old award-winning organization, a $10 million a year therapeutic school, and the only potential national franchise [of this kind] founded by a person with disabilities.”
Smith-Michaels added that the organization was seeking to expand to Florida and New Hampshire.
In between presentations and the announcement of winners, competitors received words of encouragement from Arlan Hamilton, founder and managing partner of the venture capital company Backstage Capital, and Stanley Bergman, chairman and CEO of Henry Schein Inc.