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The Next Generation of Business Owners Swap Ideas at Pitch Night

About 25 people showed up to swap business ideas and feedback for Tuesday’s Pitch Night, held at the Burns-Belfry Museum.

Jessica Clarke has big plans for the little town of Vardaman, Miss.
A senior at Ole Miss majoring in integrated marketing communications, Clarke, a native of Franklin, Tennessee, believes she can make a difference in the Calhoun County community by opening a fitness center and encouraging exercise and healthful eating habits.
Her idea for the business, to be called Inside Out Fitness, was one of four discussed at Pitch Night, an event held on Tuesday at the Burns-Belfry Museum and Multicultural Center. It was co-sponsored by Ole Miss’ McLean Institute for Community Engagement, the Yoknapatawpha Arts Council and the Oxford-Lafayette County Economic Development Foundation.
Local business owners and aspiring entrepreneurs gathered to discuss new business ideas and provide helpful feedback. Some of the presenters, including Taeisha Gambrel and Lee Ingram, have already launched their businesses, while others—including Clarke and Stacey Sanford—are still at the planning stage.
Ole Miss senior Jessica Clarke wants to open a fitness center in Vardaman, Miss.

“I worked [with local youth] in Vardaman for a month this summer and just fell in love with it,” Clarke said. “The sweet potato capital, small town, sweet people—I love it there. And the first thing parents said was, ‘Thank you so much for coming. Now our kids can turn off the tablets and go outside and do something this summer. That struck me as [meaning] there is not really a lifestyle of physical activity there.”
Whether a small, agriculture-based community like Vardaman can support a fitness center is another question, and some Pitch Night attendees expressed their doubts. But that was the point of the gathering—to let seasoned businesspeople and would-be entrepreneurs swap ideas and offer tips for fine-tuning their business plans.
Stacey Sanford of Oxford pitched the concept of a Loose Parts Exploration Center for children. “The idea is to create a safe, free-play space with beautifully curated, open-ended loose parts,” she explained. “This is like a children’s museum that the children make in real time.”
Loose parts are kid-friendly materials—such as popsicle sticks, straws, wooden blocks and cardboard boxes, to name a few possibilities—that can be moved around, tinkered with and manipulated in creative ways.
“There are tons and tons of studies about the benefits of free play,” Sanford said. “Free play is not organized play. It’s letting kids be kids and run around like heathens in a place that’s safe.”
Taeisha Gambrel (left) wants to expand her Sisters of Faith organization to Tupelo.

Taeisha Gambrel, an Ole Miss alumna from Belden, founded Sisters of Faith, a non-profit empowerment group that offers support for young women of faith and covers its expenses with an online store that sells faith-focused T-shirts. She said studies show 80% of church-going people stop going to church when they get into college.
“Our goal is to provide a space where these individuals can stay connected and continue to grow and develop,” Gambrel said.
Gambrel wants to expand her organization into the Tupelo area.
Meanwhile, Lee Ingram has already had success with his startup company, CollegiateTutoring.com, an online business that connects Ole Miss students to tutors. Ingram said his company helps overcome the stigma of needing academic tutoring by setting up sessions in the space of the client’s choice.
Ingram started the business in September and already plans to expand it to the University of Memphis later this year and open three more “campuses” in 2018. “We’re building a product that really helps people,” he said.
Danny Klimetz, a local entrepreneur who co-hosted the event with Nicole Park, said aspiring business owners need events like Pitch Night to network with, learn from and be inspired by fellow business-minded people.
“You’re going to constantly hit roadblocks, and you’re going to constantly hit walls,” he told the group. “But that doesn’t mean the project’s dead. It doesn’t mean you stop there. To me, that’s just a problem looking for an answer.”


Rick Hynum is editor-in-chief of HottyToddy.com. Email him at rick.hynum@hottytoddy.com.

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