Business program empowers local go-getters

Future entrepreneurs Howard University student Brooke Brown, left and Temple University student Bridget Duncan, take a break during the “Make Mine a Million $ Business event held at the Doubletree Hotel. — ABDUL R. SULAYMAN/TRIBUNE CHIEF PHOTOGRAPHER

Valerie Erwin has taken a step towards propelling her business in a new direction.

As the owner of Geechee Girl Rice Café, Erwin is one of 44 women entrepreneurs who won the Make Mine a Million $ (M3 1000) business event’s pitch competition.

Held by nonprofit Count Me In for Women’s Economic Independence, the initiative is geared towards inspiring 1,000 women entrepreneurs to meet the $1 million revenue mark in 18 to 36 months.

More than 200 participants turned out for a business growth event held at Philadelphia’s Doubletree Hotel. During the program, 79 women delivered a two-minute pitch before an audience of judges where they explained why their company could grow into a $1 million enterprise. Participants hailed from as far away as California and Texas.

Erwin joins 25 business owners from Pennsylvania in winning the pitch competition including Nicole Newman, Newman Networks LLC of Lansdowne and Kimberly Cuthbert, Sweet Jazmines Pastry Shop of Berwyn.

“It was really uplifting, really helpful. I went to some of the practice pitches and everybody who makes comments always starts off whenever they are critiquing anybody with the most positive words they have,” Erwin says in regards to participating in the pitch competition.

The pitch competition was open to women business owners who have been in business for at least a year and have annual revenues of $85,000 to $700,000. The winners received a prize package that includes professional coaching and a $1,000 AmEx gift card.

Erwin turned out for the M3 program because she no longer wants to be tied to her café’s kitchen. Instead she wants to focus building other aspects of her business.

“I work in a really hands on, manual labor-intensive business. I love cooking. I love making the meals. I love talking to the customers, but realistically speaking I can’t do that forever. So I have to think about how the business can go on, while I can do something that isn’t as physically taxing,” says Erwin, who serves as her restaurant’s main chef.

She’s considering expanding her business concept to include food trucks, one of the recent trends in the food business.

The event featured keynote addresses from Carol’s Daughter founder Lisa Price and top media mogul and business expert Jen Groover, educational business workshops and networking opportunities.

During her address, Price spoke on the challenges of growing Carol’s Daughter to a multimillion bath and beauty product entity.

“What I found through 18 years of doing this is that the biggest hurdle, the biggest obstacle has always been myself, and it’s better for me to work on making myself a more well-rounded person, a more balanced person, a more confident person and that in turn speaks to business,” said Price.

In 2005, Count Me In and founding sponsor American Express OPEN introduced the M3 program in response to Census statistics showing that while women-owned businesses represented nearly 50 percent of privately held companies, only 2.6 percent of their businesses reported more than $1 million.

“We really saw that as a rallying cry to help provide tools and services to help women business owners grow,” said Karen-Michelle Mirko, director of Customer Advocacy Marketing at American Express OPEN.

“Unfortunately we just did a report on the state of women owned businesses and they’re still at the two percent mark — 1.8 percent, so we know more work has to be done to help women-owned businesses grow.”

“This event is the first step for these women business owners,” Mirko says of the M3 program.

“This is where they break out of their shell, they raise their hands and they say ‘I want to commit myself to making a $1 million in revenue.’ A large percentage of women entrepreneurs are sole proprietors so this is great way to get other people talking about their business.”

“We are thrilled by the eagerness of women across the country to grow their businesses, create jobs in their communities and create stability for their families and the national economy,” said Count Me In founder Nell Merlino.

According Merlino, 30 percent of M3 participants have reached the goal of $1 million in annual revenues.

For 2010 M3 Awardee, Princess Jenkins, participating in the program enabled her to develop a strategic plan for her business.

“It basically forced me to sit down and look at my business long-term and identify my business as business that could meet the $1 million mark. It became an obtainable goal,” said Jenkins, who is the owner of The Brownstone, a Harlem-N.Y.-based women’s clothing boutique.

To attain her goal, Jenkins opened a second store in Harlem, redefined the company’s branding message, revamped Brownstone’s website and launched a new catalog. This year, she returned to M3 1000 as a vendor where she was able to display Brownstone’s clothing collection.

As an M3 awardee, Jenkins was able to tap into national public relations that nettled media coverage for her business.

“The public relations was exceptional,” said Jenkins, who had the opportunity to help raise awareness of the power of women in business by joining Merlino and other M3 awardees in ringing the opening bell of the New York Stock Exchange.

The new pitch winners will move to the next step of becoming M3 awardees. Each pitch winner will undergo extensive financial, business plan and professional reference reviews in order to determine their businesses potential to grow into million dollar enterprises quickly. M3 Awardees will be announced in late October.


Contact Tribune staff writer Ayana Jones at (215) 893-5747 or

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