Event Gives Prizes to Entrepreneurs


April 26, 2019


photo credit: The Verde IndependentThe Verde Valley version of Shark Tank made a splash in Cottonwood this month, selecting five area entrepreneurs – four from Sedona – to receive cash and other awards. In the process, a unique community asset got some well-deserved attention: the fantastic people and resources that back our already-vibrant entrepreneurial scene.  Photo Credit: The Verde Independent

The ‘MoonshotAZ Pioneer Pitch’ competition, held at Blazin’ M Ranch, featured 21 small businesses given a set time to make their case to a panel of judges, the first-place winner advancing to a statewide showdown this fall for even bigger prizes.

The top five:

Second:            Anita Marcus of Sedona’s ‘Lasergirl,’ a skin care laser resurfacing company.

Third:               Ashley Paisano of ‘Thrive’ in Cottonwood, a sober living facility.

Fourth:             Karen Russell of Sedona and ‘Karen’s Gluten-Free Living,’ providing health and nutrition coaching.

Fifth:                Joshua Vailokaitis of vegan and gluten-free ‘Tender Heart Cookies’ in Sedona.

Coming in first was Sarah Ann Lesslie of Chocolita.com, who creates culinary herb-based and coconut sugar-sweetened gourmet chocolates that are vegan, gluten-free, and low glycemic.

Sarah Ann was motivated by a cacao ceremony which made her feel “elevated and happy,” and learned the craft from Sedona chocolatier Kelly Johnson of ChocolaTree Organic Oasis.  Today, based at Synergy Lounge and Kitchen, Sarah Ann distributes her hand-made goods online at chocolita.com and to retail stores in Sedona, Flagstaff, Phoenix, Gilbert and Tucson.

“I wanted it to be functional,” she said. “Since I use herbs, a sugar-free product wasn’t quite going to do it.”  She chose low-glycemic coconut sugar in part because “my mom and aunt have diabetes, and I did not want to create something I couldn’t share with my family.”

Sarah Ann gets a $1,500 cash prize to pursue plans for new packaging and marketing. She and other winners also receive membership to the Sedona Chamber of Commerce & Tourism Bureau and other awards.

Flagstaff-based Moonshot, an entrepreneur-development program at the Northern Arizona Center for Entrepreneurship and Technology, created Pioneer Pitch, setting up five competitions around the state. The Verde Valley Regional Economic Organization (VVREO) hosted the Cottonwood event in cooperation with the Small Business Development Center (SBDC) at Yavapai College.

Leading up to Pitch Day, all 21 businesses benefitted from an “amazing business counseling experience” in four workshops organized by VVREO and SBDC, said VVREO Executive Director Mary Chicoine.  VVREO also secured donations representing $17,000 in prize value for the top five.

Some participants are now in touch with VVREO’s loan program, a $750,000 fund for local entrepreneurs unable to attract conventional financing. “Growing businesses in our own backyard is what we are all about,” Chicoine said.

In a surprising twist, all finalists received $3,000 Moonshot scholarships, initially planned for just the top three.  Inspired by the presentations, Moonshot CEO Scott Hathcock expanded the scholarship offers on the spot.

Meeting motivated entrepreneurs is always energizing, even more so due to the excellent support our startups get from organizations such as VVREO, SBDC, Yavapai College and Moonshot.  “We are not in competition from community to community,” Mary said. “We all know that uniting to help entrepreneurs succeed benefits us all.”

That kind of smart collaboration is yet another reason why Sedona — and the Verde Valley — is the best place to live, work, play and visit.

–Jennifer Wesselhoff, President/CEO