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Winners chosen for Top Gun Showcase

By Nathan Tsukroff

LEWISTON – Two winners were chosen to move on to the statewide Top Gun Showcase during the Lewiston Auburn Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce meeting last week.

 In a rare in-person breakfast meeting during a year under COVID-19 pandemic restrictions, the chamber hosted the 5th Annual Top Gun LA Regional Pitch-Off at the Ramada Lewiston Hotel and Conference Center on Pleasant Street.

The hybrid event saw entrepreneurs making their presentations virtually on a large screen set up at the front of the conference room.

Mohamed Awil, Azenaide Pedro, and Abel Dias of Community Staffing Partners in Lewiston were chosen along with Jennifer Banis of Stay FnB to move on to the Showcase on May 26.

 The Maine Center for Entrepreneurs in Portland coordinates the Top Gun program in Maine to help entrepreneurs that have a desire to grow their business by providing tools, resources, and mentorship that are intended to help them achieve long-term success. Top Gun is a 15-week  program that combines hands-on mentoring with high-impact weekly gatherings, according to the MCE website. The weekly Top Gun sessions were virtual for the second straight year, due to the pandemic.

Mohammed Awil of Community Staffing Partners in Lewiston answers a question from judge Lori Allen after an online pitch for his company at the Top Gun LA 5th Annual Pitch-off at last week’s meeting of the Lewiston Auburn Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce. The Top Gun program is intended to guide entrepreneurs in creating successful business. Awil was named one of two winners in the event, moving on to the statwide showcase on May 26. (Tsukroff photo)

This year, the sessions were statewide, bringing the LA cohort together with the other groups in Maine.

The state Showcase winner receives a cash prize of $25,000, sponsored by Maine Technology Institute.

Local company Literacy Tech was the 2020 winner, taking home the cash prize that was sponsored by Maine Technology Institute. Michelle DeBlois and Kathryn Lariviere, both full-time middle school teachers, tri-founded LiteracyTech, Inc. with Peter Janett, a web application developer in December 2019. The company provides a web-based application called ReMo that provides readers with insight and access to books.

There were seven companies involved in this year’s program in Lewiston-Auburn. The other Top Gun entrepreneurs included Maria D’Auria of Second Gen Jerky; Jamey Cotnoir of A Mindful Eye, LLC; Tara Kieger of Sweet Cakes Bake Shop; Joan Drappeau of Slicpix; and Norman Patry of Summer Feet Cycling.

Awil made his “pitch” virtually in the meeting’s Zoom session, speaking about his company’s intent to promote a workforce in Maine that is diverse, inclusive and equitable.

Awil said his company’s mission is “to build a diverse and inclusive workforce across Maine by partnering with employers” to help hire and train job seekers. He said the current system of hiring “is broken,” with potential employers lacking the cultural awareness of the barriers faced by new Mainers seeking jobs.

Community Staffing Partners addresses these challenges by providing training sessions for both employers and job seekers “in order to create a successful and lasting connection,” he said.

Banis with Stay FnB said she has been a chef with the Maine food business for over 20 years. She has operated 111 Maine, a boutique catering company, for 16 years.

 She said, “We understand that world is filled with ‘foodies’, people who are educated on food, health, sustainability. Foodies know how food makes them feel, and they know that their memorable experiences are connect to good food. And there are a lot of us out there!”

With the shift to online food shopping during the pandemic, Banis said consumers need “a platform that educates users on the local food scene. A tool for connecting growers and purveyors. A resource for sourcing all of the local foods in your area.”

She said her company provides an online platform to connect consumers with local foods and beverages. “Imagine  going to one website, typing in your location, and being able to drink in the local scene.”

  Judges for the local Pitch-Off were Steve Veazy, the District Director of SCORE Maine; Lori Allen, the business advisor for the Maine Small Business Center at the Androscoggin Valley Council of Governments (AVCOG); and Chris Rugullies, the Commercial Market Manager and a senior vice-president at Camden National Bank, and a board member for the LA Metro Chamber. 

Jennifer Banis makes a virtual pitch to judges for her company, Stay FnB, at a hybrid version of the Top Gun LA Pitch-Off during a meeting of the LA Metro Chamber last week at the Ramada Inn in Lewiston. The Top Gun program teaches entrepreneurs how to successfully promote and grow their business. Banis was named one of the two winners of the event, and will compete in the statewide showcase on May 26 for a $25,000 cash prize. (Tsukroff photo)

 Judging focused on the feasibility, the availability, and innovation of a business, and on the effectiveness of the entrepreneurs presentation at the Pitch-Off.

 LA Metro Chamber President and CEO Shanna Cox said the sponsors of the Top Gun LA program were critical to the program’s success. Sponsors include the cities of Auburn and Lewiston and Camden National Bank.

 The purpose of the Pitch-Off was to give entrepreneurs practice at making pitches to customers, advisors, or for investment, Cox said. Judges asked questions and offered feedback on how to clarify or improve a pitch.

Cox told members at the start of the program, “Think of this as a performance. No shopping allowed today. This is definitely not about finding the investors for a company. This is about practicing for some future real-world pitch and learning from other entrepreneurs.”

About 50 chamber members attended the meeting in person, seated four to a table in the large conference room. Other chamber members logged into the meeting via a Zoom session.

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