Be there as FIU social entrepreneurs enter “shark tank” Dec. 8


Doing good can also mean doing well.

That oft-heard refrain is one that StartUP FIU has taken seriously. The business-development initiative offers entrepreneurs in a variety of industries the opportunity to research and scale up their companies–and that includes helping individuals and organizations with a decided interest in social entrepreneurship.

A social entrepreneur is defined as someone who pursues novel applications that have the potential to solve community-based problems. Such individuals are willing to take on the risk and effort to create positive changes in society through their work. Not driven solely by the bottom line, they see contributing to the greater good as part of the reward.

The Empower Accelerator is StartUP FIU’s 14-week program to develop viable ventures. The program provides advisors and mentors, skills training, workspace and a wide range of additional resources. FIU students, faculty and staff as well as alumni and community members can apply. Unlike other incubators and accelerators, StartUP FIU takes no stake in the businesses they work with. FIU instead focuses on stimulating commercial investment and, by extension, job growth to contribute to the South Florida economy.

Anyone wanting to learn more about the current cohort of companies—and meet the trailblazers behind them (a few of whom are introduced below)—can attend Pitch Day 2017 from 8:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. on Fri., Dec. 8, in the Student Academic Success Center at MMC. Everyone is welcome to listen as the entrepreneurs make their case to a panel of investors looking to fund the next big idea.

Supporting minority businesses

Leyanis Diaz

As the 2017 Miss Black Florida USA, Leyanis Diaz sought a platform to empower minorities in her hometown of Miami and around the country. A Cuban immigrant raised in a low-income family, Diaz understood that entrepreneurship could be the ticket to accessing a better life for both herself and others.

Minority businesses drive some $400 billion in annual revenues and employ some 2.2 million people, according to the Minority Supplier Development Council. And while minorities are ambitious entrepreneurs, the survival rate for minority- and women-owned businesses is lower than that for other companies, according to a 2014 report by the Small Business Administration, a fact often attributed to lack of sufficient capital.

An active blogger on issues important to women of color, Diaz’s own research revealed scores of “really cool” black-owned brands she had never heard of. “Which was weird,” she admits, “because I’m in their target market.”

Diaz wanted to improve the chances of success for minority-owned businesses by helping more people discover them. Her idea: Major Marketplace, which curates and sells offerings by African Americans, Hispanic Americans, Asian Americans and Native Americans.

By spring 2017, Diaz had her website up and running. She admits, however, that she didn’t have the business skills needed to ensure success. So she showcased her concept at eMerge Americas, a technology conference that connects innovators and investors. It was there that Diaz discovered the StartUP FIU Empower Accelerator, which seemed custom crafted for her needs.

Diaz knew she had much to learn from the program’s mentors about marketing and branding her product, and how technology could improve her operations. Another plus: They could help guide her in making strategic investments in her company with the $25,000 American Entrepreneurship Award she received in the spring from an organization that supports promising new minority-owned businesses.

Throughout the 14-week Empower program, Diaz has been learning business skills and honing her brand messaging. Raised by parents who always saw working for others as the definition of success, Diaz is hoping for more for herself and other minority-owned businesses.

Read more about StartUP FIU

Looking good while doing good

Juan Castellanos

Juan Castellanos had graduated from Stanford University and spent two years with Deloitte’s global consulting practice when he decided his future was in women’s activewear. And why not? Globally, women’s activewear is a $100 billion-a-year business–$35 billion of which is in the U.S. alone.

So in January of this year, Castellanos, 25, and his Deloitte boss, Azad Rahman, quit management consulting to become the founders of Alana Athletica. With design-industry veteran and business partner Cheynelle Mendis overseeing design and production, the South Beach-based company started creating high-quality activewear manufactured in Rahman’s and Mendis’ native Sri Lanka.

Social entrepreneurship is central to the company’s mission, and the three partners wanted their work to be about more than just making money from the sale of clothing. So they partnered with Emerge Global, which supports girls and women who have been victims of sexual and physical abuse, a pressing social issue in Sri Lanka and one that Mendis had supported previously. The abuse survivors are joining the company’s production team and receiving apparel training, counseling and employment.

Wanting to understand how socially responsible businesses can remain viable, Castellanos applied to the StartUP FIU’s Empower Accelerator Program in hopes of delving deeply into product marketing and competitive analysis. The program offered him instructors and coaches, interactive training and mentorship to help develop his customer value proposition, and business and financial models to help determine how much capital he needed to raise. With help from instructors, he even learned to become a more engaging storyteller and confident speaker, which will come in handy on Pitch Day as he introduces his company to both investors and potential consumers.

“Honing their pitch with social branding could help Alana Athletica separate themselves in a very crowded field,” says Bob Hacker, co-founder and director of StartUP FIU.  The company has already raised $55,000 through a Kickstarter campaign, which went toward their first production run.

For Castellanos, himself the son of an entrepreneur, Alana Athletica promises not only a livelihood and an opportunity to have a social impact, but also the independence of business ownership.

Turning small change into big savings

Ryan Morrison

Ryan Morrison was a recent graduate saddled with student loan debt. He was also a self-taught software application coder looking to build the next great app. Taking into account his own personal circumstances and inspired by an existing app that encouraged investing and simplified savings, he came up with an idea.

What about an app geared to young people that would sync to users’ checking, debit and credit card accounts, monitor their purchases and round up each transaction to the nearest dollar? That difference, small change as it may be, would be applied to outstanding student loan or credit card balances. The “forced savings” would shave time and interest off loans or debt. His idea became CoinStash.

“You hardly feel the deductions,” Morrison says. “It’s a small impact on the short term with a large impact over the long term.”

He began writing the code and by fall 2016 set off to perform competitive and market analysis. He interviewed millennials around Miami on whether and how much they’d pay to use such an app. “The questions that came at me were always the same: When can I sign up and can I sign up my parents?” Morrison recalls. “I knew I was onto something.”

Morrison also knew he needed more business insight. A 2016 graduate of the FIU College of Business, from which he earned a finance degree, Morrison was at a networking event for Miami entrepreneurs when he learned about StartUP FIU’s Empower Accelerator Program. He knew aligning with his alma mater would bring unique benefits such as working with college professors and mentors and having constant interaction with his core market of college students and alumni with student loan debt. “I’d be able to speak to my users every day,” says Morrison, whose initial target audience for the app is FIU students.

Morrison’s expectations of StartUP FIU focused on leveraging expertise to plan his growth strategy and learn how to keep customer acquisition costs in check. By connecting with coaches and mentors through the Empower Accelerator Program, he was able to strategically decide on a price of $1.99 per month. He’s also creating his business-to-consumer marketing plans to expand to other colleges and universities.

“He has set up a solution that’s so simple to put into action,” says StartUP FIU’s Hacker. “There’s no friction to get to the solution.”

Hacker adds further that Morrison might have discovered a unique niche – helping students address a huge problem and build a network around student loan debt, which is a multi-trillion-dollar dilemma nationwide.

With a designer and engineer on board, Morrison’s smartphone app for iOS and Android should debut in December. Until then, he’s steering people to his website where they can share their email addresses to get tips, read his blog and learn about savings and how to encourage friends and family to enroll.

To learn more about the participating companies, register to attend Pitch Day or visit



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