On October 20, the Junior League of New Orleans (JLNO) hosted its annual pitch competition to determine the winner of the Woman Entrepreneurship (WE) Fellowship. To be considered for the Fellowship, women must have at least a 50% stake in an enterprise that has been in operation between one to five years with profits under $750,000. Winners receive a $5,000 grant from Fidelity Bank’s P.O.W.E.R. (Potential of Women Entrepreneurs Realized) program, along with access to work and meeting space, nonprofit board training, mentoring, and marketing assistance from JLNO’s membership.
As usual, an impressive array of finalists competed for the WE Fellowship. Prior to the pitch competition, JLNO’s WE Fellowship Committee conducted an initial review of applicants and chose five finalists. A growth consulting firm offered mentorship and training to help each woman to develop a 10-minute pitch for her enterprise to present before the JLNO’s panel of judges. This year’s judges included:
- Keisha Garrett, Principal Consultant at Gen-X Consulting Group, a firm focused on business development, strategic sourcing, and vendor compliance management and Executive Director of the New Orleans Regional Black Chamber of Commerce
- Cecile Hardy Tanguis, Founder of NOLA Couture, a high-end custom fashion design brand
- Jay Taffet, Founder of Gracen Jules, a venture development firm focused on start-up guidance, growth consulting, and capital raise support, as well as Airfoil Angels, a Gulf South angel investor network
Ultimately, the judges awarded the WE Fellowship to Atianna Cordova of WATER BLOCK Kids, an urban design studio that works to advance racial and environmental justice in our built environment through design, community engagement and planning. Cordova is a native of New Orleans; she received her Bachelor of Architecture from Louisiana State University, her Master of Science in Disaster Resilience Leadership from Tulane University, and a Certificate in Community Development Finance from the University of New Orleans. As an undergraduate, she was recognized as LSU School of Architecture’s first McNair Research Scholar; she also received a UC Berkeley Undergraduate Prize for Architectural Design Excellence Travel Fellow.
“Through these programs,” Cordova says, “I examined the relationship between architecture and homelessness in New Orleans and Haiti following Hurricane Katrina and the 2010 earthquake, respectively. By examining the culturally-led recovery efforts in both places, I was able to highlight how design practice that centers the needs and desires of people creates opportunities to advance social and environmental justice.”
Cordova’s educational experiences led her to conclude that, “the decisions made in our built environment impact every part of our lives including food, health, education, transportation and housing.” However, every community does not have an equal voice in those decisions. “Design and environmental leadership does not reflect the diversity in our communities,” Cordova asserts. In the US, only 0.4% of licensed architects are Black women, and there are similar disparities in urban planning and landscape architecture. This lack of diversity led Atianna to create WATER BLOCK in 2018.
WATER BLOCK Kids! is the company’s youth initiative, which Cordova launched this summer. It uses educational programs and products to teach elementary age kids about design, including architecture, landscape architecture, urban planning and real estate. These projects impact kids’ overall health and help them think critically about the conditions in their cities and neighborhoods. WATER BLOCK Kids! leads with the question: “How can kids design a better world?” Cordova believes that youth should understand what is happening in their communities and have the opportunity to create a future that they can thrive in. She plans on using the grant funding to invest in curriculum development, youth experience and marketing. The panel of judges will work with the JLNO to help Cordova craft a plan to leverage in-League mentors and resources.
WE Fellowship co-chairs Kate Mick and Jessica Derenbecker deserve special recognition for organizing a hybrid event to adapt to pandemic restrictions. They hosted approximately 25 people in person at Headquarters and over 100 participants online. Working with Community Council Director Rachel Stickney and the JLNO President Kristin Moore, Mick and Derenbecker created a well-structured environment for emcee Elizabeth Broekman, Assistant Vice President of Fidelity Bank and Director of P.O.W.E.R. Broekman helped the event flow smoothly in-person and connected the judges to the finalists through the Q&A period; Kevin Wilkins with Trepwise continued support to the finalists virtually.
Overall, the pitch process was extremely successful and provided networking and marketing opportunities to all participants. JLNO looks forward to tracking the success of these women entrepreneurs throughout the year.
As Kate Mick, WE Fellowship co-chair, concludes, “I can’t say thank you enough to trepwise, Fidelity P.O.W.E.R., our judges, the Women’s Leadership Summit Committee, and our JLNO Leadership for their support and countless hours in preparation to make this year’s Pitch Competition possible and a success!”
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