Veteran entrepreneurs pitch ideas for cash prizes to grow businesses
Without quality mentors during key points of his entrepreneurial journey, Phillip Burtell is certain he wouldn’t be where he is today.
The 24-year-old Washtenaw Community College student, Army veteran and business owner was named the top winner in last week’s WCC Veteran Business Pitch & Showcase Night.
Burtell operates a start-up manufacturing company, Elixir CNC, which provides automated manufacturing services to businesses and individuals. The company is so small, in fact, that the work to fabricate tools and machinery parts for his clients is all done from his parents’ garage in Saline.
The $10,000 winning prize from the Veteran Business Pitch will allow Burtell to install a heat-treat oven, which will allow him to increase productivity. Currently, he ships the steel and metal parts he makes for customers to be heat treated at other locations, a step that can add a couple of weeks to the production time. He’ll also purchase an air compressor for his sandblaster.
Burtell, who joined the Army after high school, has always been entrepreneurial-minded and interested in manufacturing. When the Veteran Business Pitch competition – hosted in partnership with Grand Valley State University MVE-Labs through WCC’s Entrepreneurship Center – was announced, he eagerly signed up.
Participants were coached and mentored on their plans and pitches during the free three-month Michigan Veteran Entrepreneur-Lab (MVE-Lab), culminating in the showcase event when a group of external judges from the business community picked the winners.
The MVE-Lab is an entrepreneurship accelerator for veterans or people connected to the military. The program provides hands-on education for people seeking to start or build a small business or to pursue an entrepreneurial endeavor.
Between his early entrepreneurial efforts, mentoring from previous business experiences and the MVE-Lab coaching, Burtell felt well prepared. “But what a surprise. … This makes me so happy,” he said.
Participants at the showcase competition presented their businesses or business plans to the public and then gave a pitch later in the evening for judges. In addition to Burtell’s 1st place prize of $10,000, another $10,000 was distributed to five other winners, including:
- Linda Kay Pruitt for Mrs. Pruitt’s Gourmet CHA CHA, 2nd place
- Jacob Inman for Veterans Sanctuary Foundation, 3rd place
- Suzette Dexter for The Great American Pet Rescue, 4th place
- People’s Choice winners Tia Sunshine Dye for Aligned Exhibits and Giuseppe Del Giudice for B-Posi+ive.
Having run 10 cohorts, this was the first time the MVE-Lab has been offered for the veteran community in Ann Arbor through the Entrepreneurship Center
“There were a variety of fantastic projects. And the stories of each and every veteran are incredible. It was truly an honor to work with them,” said Michelle Julet, director of the WCC Entrepreneurship Center.
The Entrepreneurship Center serves the entire community and offers a number of services to help budding entrepreneurs throughout Washtenaw County start or grow their businesses. A highlight is the annual Pitch@WCC competition each spring.
Burtell said he was thrilled to win the Veteran Pitch event because of the opportunity to build his company and the time and resources he has already poured into his business.
“I was always passionate about manufacturing,” said Burtell, who began pursuing his business after getting out of the Army. Though Burtell describes his early efforts as “unsuccessful,” he was undeterred. “I just put it on the backburner. It’s not like I turned the lights off and left.” Instead, he started working for a manufacturing company, Leapers, that has also helped shape his trajectory.
“They mentored me, suggested what books to read, and, even though I didn’t have a degree, they gave me a lot of time to learn,” he said. “They were looking out for my best interests.”
With his eyes on earning a higher education degree, Burtell used his GI bill to enroll at WCC in the fall of 2021, studying pre-engineering, and again turned his attention to Elixir CNC.
The Veteran Pitch showcase was the perfect opportunity to highlight and grow his small business. Some of the devices he has manufactured include vise jaws for bench vises and a gripper for a robotic arm. Burtell fabricates metal parts from 3D models.
“I thought what might set me apart at the showcase was that I’m already working on this business; it’s more than an idea,” he said. “I still have a lot to learn, but I was able to show what my shop looks like, who my customers are.”
While growing his business, school remains the number one priority for Burtell, who plans to transfer to Eastern Michigan University next fall where he will pursue a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering.
His ultimate long-term goal is to operate a company that can automate processes through robotics integration.
WCC has been a great fit, he added. “WCC was really helpful in meeting the right people,” he said. “Besides the education, which has been was the biggest benefit, it’s been great being able to talk to the right mentors for my business.”
ENTREPRENEURSHIP CENTER at WCC
Are you a business owner or future entrepreneur? The Entrepreneurship Center at Washtenaw Community College is here to help. The team is available at 734-249-5880 or at firstname.lastname@example.org. Call or email to schedule a virtual or in-person appointment in the Damon B. Flowers Building. Everyone is welcome.
- Pitch@WCC 2023”: Entrepreneurs throughout the community are invited to pitch their business plans in the 2023 Pitch@WCC competition. An information session will be hosted online January 16. The application deadline is February 16 with finalists announced on March 6. Several coaching events will help ready the finalists for the May 11th showcase pitch night open to the public. Contact the Entrepreneurship Centerfor additional information.
- Make It Real! – Ultimate Convenient Entrepreneurial Training Program: This program includes a collection of videos and microlearning resources focused on six entrepreneur topics along with individual coaching and in-person workshops based around your business area. See further information on the Entrepreneurship Center website. The program begins in January and ends in April.
About Washtenaw Community College
Washtenaw Community College (WCC), Ann Arbor, Mich., educates students through a wide range of associate and certificate programs in areas such as health care, business, STEM and advanced transportation and mobility. WCC offers accelerated and online programs and was ranked the number one community college in Michigan, according to schools.com. WCC is committed to student success, with nearly 70% of students intending to transfer to complete a bachelor degree. The college also works through community, business and union partnerships to develop highly specialized training programs to meet the region’s workforce talent needs.
For more info on GVSU MVE-Lab to this page.
For more information about Washtenaw Community College, visit www.wccnet.edu.