(From left) WBENC senior manager of programs, Audrey Awasom; pitch competition judges and UMES professors Dr. George Ojie-Ahamiojie, Dr. Cynthia Cravens, and Dr. Bryant Mitchell; pitch competition winner Cayla Jackson, and Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation Endowed Chair Dr. Pamela Allison (Photo credit: Amir Martin).

Sometimes, the greatest ideas come from personal experiences.

That was the case for University of Maryland Eastern Shore sophomore Cayla Jackson when she came up with the concept of “Knew-U,” an online platform focusing on self-care topics while also making shopping and booking services appointments easier and more personalized for its users.

“I grew up with personal insecurity, comparing myself with women on social media, or in magazines, and on TV and noticing that I don’t look like that,” she said. “I tried to go and find different avenues to make myself look like that. It was my own personal frustrations manifesting into a movement.”

Jackson saw the concept of “Knew-U” as something that would beneficial to all women, which gave her the confidence to pitch her company at the Women’s Business Enterprise National Council’s (WBENC) Women of Color Incubator Program, hosted by UMES’s Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation on Nov. 10. Her faith was rewarded as she claimed the $1,500 first-place prize in seed capital and received an invitation to pitch her idea at the WBENC National Conference & Business Fair in Denver in March 2024.

UMES was one of four HBCUs, including North Carolina A&T, Florida A&M, and Howard, selected to host the competition.

The Women of Color Incubator is an initiative designed for African-American female students at HBCUs, and provides the next generation of African-American women entrepreneurs with resources, community, and support needed to strengthen their ideas and grow their early-stage ventures, according to the WBENC website.

Cayla Jackson comes up to receive first place during the Women’s Business Enterprise National Council’s Women of Color Incubator pitch competition held at the UMES Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation in Kiah Hall on Nov. 10 (Photo credit: Amir Martin).

“Our program chair, Dr. Pamela Allison is a member of the WBENC through her personal business and that was how UMES became affiliated with this,” said Kevin O’Dell, the program specialist at the UMES Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation. “By establishing the relationship with WBENC we knew that we would be a perfect candidate for this program, which gives us the opportunity to compete with other HBCUs.”

As part of the incubator, the grouping participated in four sessions since September – two in-person and two virtual – featuring expert speakers from Fortune 500 companies giving testimonials and advice on how to implement and design their businesses and work through a business plan.

The fifth and final event in the incubator was the pitch competition on Nov. 10 where every participant received a $100 cash prize and second place earned $500.

Other hopefuls who sought to promote their ideas included Ebony Jenkins, a doctoral candidate whose business plan centered on rearing insects for consumption. Jenkins’s dissertation, focusing on rearing edible insects, has received attention as her research was featured on PBS’s NOVA.

“If an entity like PBS was interested in my work, why wouldn’t other companies be interested as well as an alternative?” Jenkins, who finished second in the competition, said. “The population is expected to explode to nine billion people, so we’re going to need to find ways to feed people.”

In addition to gaining free access to a network of more than 4,000 attendees, Jackson will vie for $25,000 in start-up money pitching their business in at the Women of Color Championship competition.

Jackson, who has feverishly started to overhaul her pitch for the Denver competition, said being able to win the incubator helped instill more confidence in her.

“It taught me to be more confident in myself even if I’m not all the way sure,” she said. “I feel hopeful. It’s given me the realization that this idea can really come to fruition.”

For more information about the UMES Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation, click on the link here.

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