Military American Dream Blog

Military Entrepreneur Challenge at the Military Influencer Conference 2023

The Second Service Foundation hosts regional Military Entrepreneur Challenge (MEC) pitch competitions throughout the year, with 2023 visiting Austin, TX, Washington, D.C., and Arlington, TX. Our National event, however, is held annually at the Military Influencer Conference (MIC), this year in Las Vegas. This is the culmination of a year’s worth of free Second Service online classes, Ask Me Anything sessions with our Executive Director, in-person talks on perfecting pitches, and, of course, the regional pitch competitions. Any and all military entrepreneurs are eligible and encouraged to apply, but our National MEC has higher stakes, with thousands in attendance at MIC and $15k on the line, in addition to $50k in legal services from our partner Holland & Knight LLP, and a $5k in-house PR package.

While our regional MECs select nine Semi-Finalists who move through only two rounds (a private pitch to a panel of judges, and then the Top Three Finalists pitch on stage to the audience), our National MEC has an additional round and a larger number of Participants. This year, over two dozen Participants were selected to pitch, with countless more having applied. We added in Lady Luck slots, allowing for unsuspecting entrepreneurs to have the chance to pitch by showing up at a certain time with all compliance in hand. The initial Quarter Finals was the private judging panel round, and the judges’ scores whittled the contestants to 20 Semi-Finalists. The 20 Semi-Finalists then pitched on an open stage within the MIC ballroom, allowing hundreds of attendees, customers, sponsors, donors, and investors to hear about their businesses. From there: The Top Four. The plan was that the judges’ scores would determine the Top Three, and also an Audience Vote Wild Card to round out the Top Four Finalists. Only three would be awarded prizes, competing for the grand prize of $15k in social-impact capital, $50k of in-kind legal services from Holland & Knight LLP, and a $5k in-house PR package from us.

Then came the hiccup.

Our judges’ score cards had a tie. There was no getting around it: we had five highly competitive businesses and nonprofits who had received the qualifying scores. Our Top Four Finalists became the Top Five Finalists, and they were announced with squeals of delight from the audience. Surprising everyone further: Dan Sylvester (Partner at Holland & Knight LLP, Co-Chair of H&K’s DiverseAbility Affinity Group, and Vice Chair of the Firm’s Diversity Council) announced to the excited crowd that he would be giving $15k pro-bono legal services to both of the 4th and 5th Place winners. Mark Rockefeller, our Founder and Chairman, then announced that the 4th and 5th Place winners would also be receiving $1k start-up grants. The room was abuzz to learn that not three, not four, but five people in the room would walk away with prizes.

Kayla Corbitt, a previous pitch competitor from March 2023 in Austin, moved to the final round on behalf of her nonprofit, The Operation Childcare Project. Another selection, Chris Wingate, we met at the Business Beyond the Battlefield Conference when he politely introduced himself and patiently waited to see if any contestants didn’t show up; he was prepared to pitch that day without any prior notice — true ambition and confidence! Chris moved forward for his company, Cassia Connors, joining us from San Diego, advanced after receiving high marks from the judges to pitch Flok LLC, an app dedicated to human connection. Paden Sickles of Sick Fit LLC, a sock, streetwear, and custom embroidery company nabbed another spot. And Chris “Coach T” Torres, one of our Lady Luck competitors who was announced as a surprise contender while at MIC, won the Audience Vote Wild Card slot by a landslide for his nonprofit, Future Stars Sports Clinic that provides activities and mentorship for at-risk youth.

Once they were announced as Finalists, the Top Five immediately pitched to a live audience. The esteemed panel (judges from the previous round but no longer submitting their votes) was able to take the time to ask detailed questions to benefit the audience’s understanding of each business and mission, and then it was time for the audience to vote on their favorite contender. The Finalists had to stay in suspense, though, as we didn’t announce the winner until later that evening. 

That night at the Mighty 25 Gala, we finally announced our winners. Our Grand Prize winner, Kayla Corbitt, was given the stage to pitch The Operation Child Care, utilizing an incredible platform with such a high caliber of people in the audience. 

We had an unforgettable week at MIC. For 2024, it is in Atlanta, so plan ahead to book tickets, flights, and rooms — we hope to see you there! 

1st Place – Kayla Corbitt of The Operation Child Care: $15k capital grant from Sam Adams Brewing the American Dream, $50k in-kind legal services from Holland & Knight LLP, $5k PR package from the Second Service Foundation

2nd Place – Paden Sickles of SickFit LLC: $6k capital grant from Sam Adams Brewing the American Dream and $25k in-kind legal services from Holland & Knight LLP

3rd Place – Chris Torres of Future Stars Sports Clinic: $4k capital grant from Sam Adams Brewing the American Dream and $25k in-kind legal services from Holland & Knight LLP

4th Place (tie) – Chris Wingate of $1k capital grant from Sam Adams Brewing the American Dream and $15k in-kind legal services from Holland & Knight LLP

4th Place (tie) – Cassia Connors of Flok LLC: $1k capital grant from Sam Adams Brewing the American Dream and $15k in-kind legal services from Holland & Knight LLP

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