A number of startup and existing small businesses from Martinsville and Henry County emerged victorious last
week at the awards and graduation ceremony for the 8th annual Gauntlet Business Program & Competition. Of the 66 businesses competing for award packages including cash and in-kind prizes, local businesses took the top two spots. In total, 17 local entrepreneurs received recognition for their business plans at a ceremony held May 15 in Vinton, VA.
In a historic first, the business program had two first-place winners, including Martinsville’s Natalie Hodge and her company, Rudy’s Girl Media. The company is a multi-media content developer based in Uptown Martinsville. Hodge, who earned her master’s degree from Cornell University and has worked in the entertainment industry in New York and Los Angeles, has produced a number of short films and is currently at work on the second season of the reality series “Hometown Hustle,” spotlighting other local entrepreneurs.
Hodge will receive a total prize package of $29,840, including $20,000 in cash and $9,849 in in-kind prizes.
“I was overwhelmed, and still am,” Hodge said of her win. “Experts in economic development saw my studio concept as a game changer. That was a high compliment especially because I heard elevator pitches from other businesses. I know that I was amongst the best and brightest. Our community in particular had strong businesses as part of the competition. To be chosen as the top business is a huge honor.”
She said the program was beneficial “in that it allowed local entrepreneurs, like myself, the opportunity to network with other small business owners and economic development professionals across the Commonwealth.”
Of the items in her prize package, she said “the billboard was a big deal for me.” (The first place winners were featured on a Roanoke billboard, courtesy of Lamar.) “To see my logo featured was an absolute dream come true.”
Hodge said “every dollar of the prize will go to transforming the first floor of 30 West Main Street (a property she recently purchased in Martinsville) into Rudy’s Girl Media Studios. It will not only be a space for my own content development, but also for community members to explore the art of multimedia production. We’ll host screenings, workshops, castings, and creative collaboration meetings.”
She tied for first place with Roanoke-based Natalie Ashton, owner of Electric Iris 3D, a producer of innovative poultry incubator accessories.
Herb Atwell and Peggy Donivan, who own Mountain Valley Brewing in Axton, also earned a top spot in the competition. Their pitch for a new uptown brewpub, Renewal Brewing, earned them second place and a total prize package of $14,525, including $12,000 in cash, a one-year free membership in the Martinsville-Henry County Chamber of Commerce, an advertising consultation, legal consultation, business counselling, a logo package, and other in-kind awards.
Donivan said the couple was “absolutely thrilled” with their second place finish. “There were so many deserving entrepreneurs in the competition, and to know that we had placed well made all the stress and hard work of the last few months worthwhile.”
Though they have operated Mountain Valley Brewing for five-years and have had other small business ventures previously, Donivan said the program “was good to put all the pieces together in one place. The business plan for our new venture was much more detailed than I had imagined and took several attempts, plus a lot of starting and re-starting, but in the long run it forces you to think about the details and make sure your plan makes sense.” She said the couple also learned pitching their business successfully.
“Networking with others was by far the most valuable part of the program,” she said. “There are so many people out there that can help you, and vice versa, but you will never know until you start going out and meeting folks.”
The pair are most excited for the cash award they received as part of their prize package. “This new venture is going to take a lot of capital, and the prize money will definitely make it easier to make some initial equipment purchases,” including a new brewing system which, Donivan said, can be costly but “the Gauntlet award will definitely ease that burden a little.”
Donivan said it was amazing to see communities participating in the program come together to give awardees so many in-kind prizes, including legal and marketing consultations, “many of which are desperately needed by every new business.”
Ultimately, Donivan said she would “highly recommend this program to anyone just starting out in business, thinking about a business, or expanding an existing one. There’s always something to learn.”
Coming in third place was yet another local entrepreneur, Dr. Mary Beth Noonan of Children First Pediatrics of Virginia PC, whose total prize package totals $13,940 and includes $12,000 cash.
In fact, of 17 ranked platinum award winners at last week’s awards, nearly half were Martinsville-Henry County businesses. Josh Blancas, who currently owns The Ground Floor in uptown, placed 10th for his new endeavor, Backspace Coffee. Forrest Forschmiedt won 12th place for Made in Martinsville, Duncan Monroe placed 13th for his Customiz3design, and DeShanta Hairston placed 14th for Books and Crannies.
The Gauntlet class of 2022 attracted a record 153 entrepreneurs from communities across the Roanoke Valley, Shenandoah Valley, and Southside. After 10 weeks of classes, a total of 66 businesses moved on to compete for their piece of over $400,000 in cash, grants, and in-kind prizes and services.
In total, 17 Martinsville and Henry County entrepreneurs were recognized with monetary and in-kind prize packages during the ceremony, receiving gold, silver, and bronze awards:
Shane and Paula Wood of Wood Worx Wellness (gold award, total prize package of $5,790)
Tanya Jones-Harrison of Dependable Home Healthcare, LLC (gold award, total prize package of $3,690)
Christi Hodges and Jason Grodensky of The Boutique Uptown & The Men’s Room Uptown (silver award, total prize package of $3,690)
Venena Preston of Faithfully Yours (silver award, total prize package of $3,090)
Sierra Barrow of The Barrow Center (bronze award, total prize package of $2,230)
Mercedes Moreno of Meche’s Beauty Salon and Esthetic (bronze award, total prize package of $1,990)
Shatera Robertson of Unique Styles and Designs Floral Boutique (bronze award, total prize package of $1,990)
Chantila Hairston of LTL Trichology Clinic, LLC (bronze award, total prize package of $1,990)
Loronia Gravely of Caring Hands Transport (bronze award, total prize package of $1,990)
Kirk Cotter of Slainte Ranch, LLC (bronze award, total prize package of $1,990)
Part of the prize package for local winners was a one-year free membership in the Martinsville-Henry County Chamber of Commerce.
Sharon Shepherd, the chamber’s deputy director, congratulated the winners and explained that chamber membership provided the entrepreneurs with certain “members-only perks, exclusive advertising, networking opportunities” and, perhaps most importantly, “a whole lot of exposure for themselves and their organization. We hope by offering them a year’s membership at no cost, they will use their benefits and perks to establish a sound foundation and grow.
“Chambers of Commerce are strong,” Shepherd said. “The M-HC Chamber of Commerce wants to share that strength with our membership to create and maintain a strong business community.”
Uptown Partnership (UP) Executive Director Kathy Deacon said her organization completed a grant application to the Virginia Department of Housing and Community Development to receive funding and bring the program to the area.
“We were one of seven communities across Virginia to be awarded the CBL (Community Business Launch) grant,” which resulted in more than $133,000 in cash and in-kind support going directly to entrepreneurs in our community looking to open or expand a business in the Uptown business district.
In addition to the chamber, Deacon also acknowledged Longwood Small Business Development Center, which provided business plan and other support to the entrepreneurs, as well as Carter Bank and Trust, which she said was the local program sponsor and contributed an additional $5,000 to the cash awards.
“Uptown Partnership is incredibly proud of all 17 entrepreneurs who developed and submitted business plans as part of the intense Gauntlet program and represented Uptown Martinsville incredibly in this regional business competition,” Deacon said. “We are grateful to the Virginia Department of Housing and Community Development, the City of Martinsville, and Carter Bank and Trust whose funding made this Community Business Launch program possible for our community.
According to a release, since Gauntlet classes began in February, participants across the program’s service region have purchased $760,000 in commercial real estate and, over the next two years, are projected to spend $502,000 in leasing commercial property, create 263 new full-time jobs, and generate profit revenues of $3,382,324.
“At the end of the day,” the release stated, “our communities are far better for having fostered diverse business development. Whether scalable high-growth companies or Main Street enterprises, the vibrant quality of life, a robust and sustainable economy are all outcomes of this investment in business development.”