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La’Crassia Wilderness of skincare brand Butter Love

Five entrepreneurs have been selected to participate in UMSL’s second Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Accelerator.

They include two business people working in food and catering, one woman with a skincare brand, a creative and brand development agency geared towards POC, and a man making companies’ web presences accessible for disabled people. 

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La’Crassia Wilderness of skincare brand Butter Love

La’Crassia Wilderness of skincare brand Butter Love, Will Bubenik of Nebula Media Group, Paris Rollins of Picky Eaterz, Tony Davis of Pop Pop Hurray! Gourmet Popcorn, and Valeria Rodriguez of VR Creative were each awarded a $50,000 non-dilutive grant to develop their businesses Wednesday. They will hit the ground running for a year of entrepreneurship training at the beginning of January. Their year as part of the UMSL DEI Accelerator will also include a paid student intern from UMSL, masterclasses with leaders in various aspects of business, and connections to the UMSL faculty and alumni networks. 

Akeem Shannon’s phone-kickstand brand Flipstik was part of last year’s inaugural cohort and featured on Shark Tank. Since his participation in the UMSL DEI Accelerator, Flipstik is set to be sold in thousands of big-box stores across the nation next year.

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Akeem Shannon

Shannon said UMSL’s diverse business accelerator program is special because it provides resources to businesses traditional investors are less likely to take a chance on–and then, when those businesses thrive, the dollars stay in the community. 

“There are businesses, there are entrepreneurs, there is a lot of potential here,” Shannon said. “When you look at the coasts, when you look at other major metropolitan areas, they’re not really interested in investing in the type of businesses, honestly, that a lot of minorities start. If you look around here, everyone here is not a high-tech … business model. And a lot of people outside of St. Louis, they won’t invest in that. So, the fact that we have someone in town who’s like, if you have a good idea…we’re going to invest in you? That’s huge.” 

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La’Crassia Wilderness of skincare brand Butter Love

One of those deeply-rooted St. Louis community businesses is Pop Pop Hurray, which opened up its first brick-and-mortar store in the heart of Ferguson during the pandemic. 

“We knew we wanted to put our first store in North County, in the community. Because it’s a family-friendly establishment, and it’s not many of those around,” Tony Davis, the founder, said.

Now, they’re hoping to use their UMSL Accelerator grant to open a second location and employ more people. 

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Pop Pop Hurray popcorn founder Tony Davis in his Ferguson, Mo. location Mon. Dec. 13, 2021. 

“We’re really tied to the community,” he said. “We provide jobs…our current location, we have seven employees. And this money will go towards our second location, where we’ll have more employees. So, continuing to grow, continuing to be able to…pour back into the community.” 

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Pop Pop Hurray popcorn founder Tony Davis in his Ferguson, Mo. location Mon. Dec. 13, 2021. 

Though the other four businesses selected do not at this time have brick-and-mortar locations, that doesn’t mean they aren’t connected to St. Louis. La’Crassia Wilderness has been running Butter Love, her natural skincare and self-care brand, for seven years.

“It’s been amazing but difficult,” Wilderness said. 

Will Bubenik, who founded Nebula Media Group to help companies make their websites accessible to disabled users, and Paris Rollins, whose Picky Eaterz catering company provides healthy food to children and infants, have also experienced challenges since founding their companies, but remained rooted in St. Louis. 

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La’Crassia Wilderness of skincare brand Butter Love

“These opportunities are very slim and don’t come around very often,” Rollins said. 

Rollins said she started Picky Eaterz after noticing the same health issues reoccurring over and over again in her family members, and realizing it was easier to change the health habits of children than adults.

“I really want to change the game and raise the next generation healthier and prevent many deaths and illnesses,” she added.

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Akeem Shannon

UMSL Accelerator Executive Director Dan Lauer said he wants to make these opportunities for entrepreneurship more available here as the Accelerator grows. As architects’ renderings on the walls of the current Accelerator space demonstrate, he plans to develop UMSL’s entrepreneurship space “into a collaboration space that will rival the Cortex” in North County. “Our mission is to be the first choice for entrepreneurship-minded students.” 

“St. Louis is home to an abundance of entrepreneurial talent with good ideas, but not everyone has the same access to opportunity,” Lauer said. “We are doing our part in moving the needle through significant capital injection. By leveraging university strengths, we will offer these outstanding entrepreneurs talented paid student interns, engaged alumni leaders and brilliant faculty committed to amplifying with possible grants and further research.”

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