Written By Amanda Mollindo

The Big Pitch is CEI’s accelerator and pitch competition for student entrepreneurs who attend Maricopa Community Colleges, and it’s easily the most exciting week of the year for our team. Few things are more rewarding than meeting the finalists, bringing in seasoned business leaders to share the ups and downs of launching a company, and seeing the students support each other through one of the most challenging five days of their academic careers. 

Now in its third year, The Big Pitch was off to a strong start. Over 70 students from across the District applied to participate, and eight colleges sent ten highly motivated candidates to the competition. Students were competitively selected by faculty and staff at their respective colleges, and many competed against their peers in campus-wide “Little Pitches” to secure a coveted seat at CEI’s Big Pitch. 

Meet the 2020 Student Cohort

This year’s cohort came with a variety of backgrounds, a wide range of business ideas, and many were already the early stages of in-revenue. Rather than spending their Spring Break relaxing, students worked tirelessly to prepare for the final competition that was scheduled to take place on March 18, 2020. The two dozen speakers and mentors who came through the program were all highly impressed with the caliber of the group. Keep reading to learn all about this group of rockstars and watch their virtual pitch!

Marisa Green

Unwind Yoga
Chandler-Gilbert Community College

With extensive experience practicing and teaching yoga, Marisa Green knows how beneficial this form of exercise can be to reduce stress and improve one’s ability to focus. That’s why she created Unwind Yoga, a corporate service to increase productivity and retention by supporting the wellbeing of employees.

Jason Higgins

Jupiter Rings Buffalo Sauce
Glendale Community College

Jason Higgins and his son founded Jupiter Rings Buffalo Sauce, and their line of products includes one of the first vegan buffalo sauces available on the market. Their sauces can be found at restaurants, stores and arenas in 6 countries, and will soon be sold in Sprouts Farmers Markets nationwide! 

Mary-Elizabeth Gilbertson

Tailored Tutoring
Glendale Community College

After seeing her younger sister struggle with a learning disability, Mary-Elizabeth Gilbertson realized the impact that tutoring could make on a child’s life, as long as it’s designed around the needs of the student. To solve this problem, she has created a tutoring system that focuses on building a plan around the way the student learns best.

Delaney Krieger

Henna Laney
Mesa Community College

As a henna artist, Delaney Kreiger knows that many people still want to experience the joy of body art without the lifelong commitment of a permanent tattoo. To bring a unique spin to the traditional art of henna tattooing, this young entrepreneur came up with the idea to create a traveling henna studio on a renovated bus. This would allow her to bring her services to parties and public gatherings while still maintaining a clean, comfortable and private environment.

Michael Catania

KC Solar
Paradise Valley Community College

Interest in solar energy is on the rise as people search for clean alternatives to fossil fuels, leading to many homeowners installing panels on residential properties. Unfortunately, few realize that solar panels require routine cleaning to improve efficiency and extend their lifespan. Michael is solving this problem by providing residential cleaning service for solar panels.

Milene Kibler 

Concordia Designs
Phoenix College

Milene Kibler’s lifelong passion for furniture led her on a journey from Mexico to the United States. After a career working in the industry in both countries, she is finally ready to launch her dream business. Concordia Designs, LLC will specialize in furniture resale, where she will purchase handmade pieces from Mexico and distribute them to local furniture stores in Arizona.

Jessica Lemus 

Pristine Cleaning
Phoenix College (At-Large Candidate)

After construction is done on a residential property, it’s important to ensure that these sites are move-in ready. Founded by Jessica Lemus, Pristine Cleaning Services offers a 4-step process to get new homes ready for their future owners.

Jackie Ludgate

Desert Java
Rio Salado Community College

Originally from Washington state, Jackie Ludgate’s passion for coffee began with her first job at a locally-owned coffee shop. She wants to bring this Pacific Northwest tradition to the Southwest by creating a drive-thru coffee stand to serve high-quality coffee at events throughout the Phoenix Valley.

Jeni Himmer

Radnaut Prints
Scottsdale Community College

As an artist and designer, Jeni Himmer knows how hard it can be to build a base of patrons and find a high-quality printer to trust with making recreations of your art. That’s why she created Radnaut Prints, an affordable printing service and free web-based selling platform for local small businesses and artists. Not only will they use a unique printing process, but they have built a community of support for creatives to build an audience for their work!

Frankie Aguilera

Servants LLC
South Mountain Community College

Have you ever considered what could happen if flooding occurred in your home? Servants LLC removes standing water, damaged floors, and humidity when things go awry. They also provide asbestos abatement, and mold remediation services to make sure people are living in safe, healthy environments. 

A Student Business Accelerator Takes an Unexpected Turn

Over Spring Break, the competitors learned invaluable lessons about starting a business and how to captivate an audience with their pitch. They worked day in and day out to build feasible business plans that would be shared with a live audience full of college leaders, faculty mentors, peers and family the following week on Wednesday, March 18, 2020. Check out the photo galleries below to get a behind-the-scenes look at this exciting week!

Unfortunately, news about the Coronavirus outbreak in the U.S. began to dominate the headlines that same week. Day by day, the Community College District was taking additional measures to protect students, staff and the community through campus closures. By Friday, it became clear that The Big Pitch event would need to be cancelled. With a heavy heart, Tom Schumann broke the news to our hardworking group — but the CEI team reassured them that this wouldn’t be the end of the competition.

“When we found out that it was being canceled and moved, my heart sank. I was devastated. I thought there was no way I would be able to do this if it’s not face-to-face, if it’s not next week. But I feel like the CEI team was very accommodating and helpful. Even though we are further away from our week of training, I still felt confident that I could pitch. And if I had any questions, I knew I could reach out and I wouldn’t be left on my own.”

Mary-Ann Gilbertson, Founder of Tailored Tutoring & Student from Glendale Community College

Pivoting the Pitch in a Pandemic

If The Big Pitch accelerator was a crash-course in starting a business, ending the week with great uncertainty was a true test of the entrepreneurial spirit. Despite these obstacles, the students put their trust in CEI’s team to ensure The Big Pitch competition would go on. 

As we put our heads together to come up with a new plan for the conclusion of The Big Pitch, the students had to adjust to major changes brought on by the COVID-19 outbreak in Arizona, but still kept their business ideas top-of-mind as they waited for news from CEI. 

Ultimately, we decided that the best course of action would be to record each students’ pitch individually and send those videos to the judges. So in mid-April, a month after the original competition, all of the participants readjusted their presentations to be delivered virtually. And although they didn’t have the excitement of a live event with friends and family supporting the culmination of their hard work, each one gave it their all. 

Once the final video was recorded, the judges had a week to deliberate. And on April 28, 2020, we reconvened with the entire group to reveal the winner: Phoenix College’s nominee and founder of Concordia Designs, Milene Kibler.

Milene Kibler, founder of Concordia Designs and student at Phoenix College, won The 2020 Big Pitch competition.

Milene Kibler, founder of Concordia Designs and student at Phoenix College, won The 2020 Big Pitch competition.

Although they couldn’t be together in-person, the bond that the students developed over Spring Break was clear as they celebrated Milene’s success. 

Her passion and dedication was clear from the beginning, and CEI looks forward to supporting her throughout the initial phase of launching her business. 

“It has been an absolute pleasure for us to coach Milene and watch her embrace the entrepreneurial mindset over the last few months. She was receptive to our suggestions and exceeded our expectations every time we met. Milene proactively researched and learned more about her industry while balancing family, work and school. As a Phoenix College family, we are proud to have her represent our school and the District as The Big Pitch winner.”  

— Sherlyn Celaya & Dawson Dopp, Phoenix College Faculty Contacts for The Big Pitch

As we look back on this year’s Big Pitch, we are proud of the adaptability and commitment exhibited by each competitor. This group worked together and supported one another through the challenges put forth by both the program and by the difficult circumstances caused by COVID-19. Everyone who participated proved that they have what it takes to be a successful entrepreneur, and we can’t wait to see where they go from here!

 Thank You to Everyone Who Made This Possible!


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Bruce Balfour, PhD, Phoenix Forge Makerspace
Odeen Domingo, CO+HOOTS
Geoffry Ossias, Goodwin Law


Greg Bullock, TheraSpecs
Michael Goodman, Revenue Kinetics, LLC
Ben Smith & Jacqueline Hein, Xcellerate Biomedical Technologies
Ronnie Ruiz, Kustom Tyres and Supplies
Michael Simmons, Catalyst Sale
Rick Stoddard, Indecomm Digital
Liz Warren, South Mountain Community College Storytelling Institute
Kevin Youngblood, Youngblood Works

Mentors & Pitch Coaches

Pete Barry, SCORE Mentor
Mike Dillon, SCORE Mentor
Scott Ferreira, cmdR Consulting, LLC
Oliver Graudejus, BMSEED
Joyce Keane, SCORE Mentor
Catherine Ko, SCORE Mentor
Donavon Ostrom, Arizona Collaboratory
Bruce McHenry, South Mountain Community College Community Entrepreneurship Center
David Richardson, BSE, PSM, bioSyntagma
Dorine Rivers, PhD, Alpha 81 Inc.
George Sezemsky, SCORE Mentor
Wally Simons, SCORE Mentor
Tom Miller, Serial Entrepreneur
Melanie Vinuelas, SCORE Mentor
Jim Zemezonak, Boulders Realty Advisors
Tom Zender, CEO Mentor & Business CoachAmanda MollindoMay 6, 2020

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