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After 8 Intensive Weeks And An Influx Of $50K, Business Owners Reflect On Accelerator’s Merits

052621_MirandaMunguia_subjectsEricLove_MichelleRobinson.jpg
Miranda Munguia
From accounting and marketing insights to a professional photoshoot, the UMSL Diversity, Equity, & Inclusion Accelerator provided Eric Love (at left), Michelle Robinson (right) and their fellow inaugural cohort members with eight jampacked weeks’ worth of business resources — and $50,000.

Early on in the COVID-19 pandemic, Eric Love found himself laid off from his corporate day job — and worried. But Love also had a side business offering on-demand furniture assembly, and he and his cofounder Darren Williams decided it was time to try to go full throttle with it.

“[We’ve] just got to bet on ourselves,” Love remembers telling Williams last spring.

What is now Assembly On Demand began to gain traction — and also became one of six companies (among 430 applicants) whose founders just completed the University of Missouri-St. Louis’ inaugural Diversity, Equity, & Inclusion Accelerator.

In addition to providing the Assembly On Demand founders with $50,000 in non-dilutive, or equity-free, capital that is helping them move into a warehouse and grow their team, the eight-week business development program connected them with successful entrepreneurs for twice-a-week sessions. Love relished getting to pick the brains of everyone from NFL players to people selected specifically for their expertise in his industry.

At times, it was “pretty overwhelming.”

“We were still managing businesses [while completing the UMSL DEI Accelerator program],” Love told St. Louis on the Air. But he emphasized it was time and energy extremely well spent.

And on Wednesday’s show, Love joined host Sarah Fenske to discuss how the accelerator is helping to bring his local company to a new level.

Michelle Robinson, the owner of DEMIblue Natural Nails and a fellow member of the accelerator cohort, also shared her story. Robinson first began rolling out her vegan-based beauty products about two years ago, after being inspired by her mother, a cancer survivor.

“When my mother was diagnosed with cancer, I took a closer look at a lot of the cosmetics and products that she was using, trying to make sure that she used things that were healthier for her,” Robinson explained, “because my mother is that flamboyant woman who loved to express her personality through her look, and she no longer could use a lot of the products that were on the market. And because I had that experience [working] in health care, I understood how those chemicals impacted the body.”

When she heard about UMSL’s program, which draws support from Ameren, Edward Jones, Express Scripts and anonymous supporters, she jumped at the chance to apply. She’d found it difficult to find opportunities to finance her business.

How 2 Local Entrepreneurs Found A Much-Needed Boost This Spring Via The UMSL DEI Accelerator
Listen as host Sarah Fenske talks with Eric Love and Michelle Robinson.

“What caught my eye was definitely the opportunity to receive the $50,000 non-dilutive grant to businesses,” Robinson said. “They focused on businesses that are underserved in the communities, and then not only did they provide funding, but access to educational materials, mentors and resources to help in areas that my business struggled in.”

Those resources also appealed to Love and Williams, whose business had initially failed to gain much steam after launching in 2015, around the same time that IKEA opened a St. Louis store.

“We know how IKEA is and how people can be afraid of it, and we knew that was a pain point for so many people,” Love recalled of their initial concept. “So we said, ‘Well, let’s leverage the launch of IKEA and start our assembly service, because we know there’s a need.’ … [But] we received no IKEA business for about two years. We were like, ‘Where’s all the business?’ And we really knew nothing about the marketing aspect of things.”

By the time the UMSL opportunity popped on their radar last year, business had really picked up. But Love and his cofounder knew there was much still to learn.

“When [the accelerator] came up, we were well positioned and knew exactly where we wanted to go and where we wanted to be over the next three years,” Love said.

Getting selected for the inaugural cohort was a huge moment — and a pleasant one. Robinson recalled the live virtual pitching process as “very intense.”

“It’s different when you’re talking about your business just to kind of educate your family and your friends. … But when you have to professionally put together a pitch that really exposes your business to people for investment purposes, it’s a totally different ballgame,” she said. “And it was definitely intense, but it was an opportunity to really hone in on what I was lacking, and what I needed help with, and really speak to that.”

Love remembers finishing up his pitch alongside Williams, and then giving each other a big, hopeful hug.

“And we said, ‘Hey, we did it; now let’s just see,’” Love recalled. “And Darren [Williams], he had so much faith. He was like, ‘You know what, I think we got it. I think we did it.’ And I was just believing like he believed, and they chose us.”

Reflecting on the experience now that it’s wrapped up, the entrepreneurs said they’d encourage fellow underrepresented business owners to consider applying for such an opportunity, even if it feels like a long shot.

“It really motivated me to see that there’s so many Black and brown and minority businesses in the region who are actually active and in business and for profit,” Love said. “In the cohort, we were really able to mesh, just because we all do come from pretty similar backgrounds, and we all can relate to the struggle of how to get funding or finding funding and being overlooked at times, when we know that we’re well qualified for the opportunity.”

St. Louis on the Air” brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. The show is hosted by Sarah Fenske and produced by Alex Heuer, Emily Woodbury, Evie Hemphill and Lara Hamdan. The audio engineer is Aaron Doerr.

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Evie is a producer for "St. Louis on the Air" at St. Louis Public Radio.

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