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Textile studio snags NWA Startup Cup win

story and photos by Ben Pollock
special to The City Wire

Fayetteville-based Olive Loom is the winner of the first NWA Startup Cup, organizers announced Thursday (Nov. 15).

The honor is the finale of a months-long competition designed to foster new businesses in the area, according to its regional organizer, Tonya Nkokheli.

The Northwest Arkansas project  was the first licensee of the Tulsa-based StartUp Cup, she said.

The overall enterprise in its six years has expanded to several countries besides the U.S., said its CEO, Sean Griffin, who spoke to the gathering via Skype from California. Griffin also was one of the regional contest's seven judges.

The original 40 contestants were whittled to 25 then a dozen and at last to seven finalists. No entry fees were charged, as sponsorships funded the contest. Those seven, and their supporters, attended the ceremony held at The Iceberg, a cooperative office space in central Fayetteville.

Olive Loom, a textile studio run by its president, Leah Garrett, 34, and her mother, Lou Sharp, proposes to expand by contracting with artisans to assemble clothing, aprons, slippers, bags and related textile objects that it designs and cuts first.

It already has dozens of artisans in the area working for it, Garrett said, and plans to recruit more from across the country.

Michael Downs, who handles marketing and sales for Garrett, said Olive Loom will sell to individuals but its business model is to focus on marketing to retailers, both single shops and chains smaller than 200 stores.

Sharp is in charge of product design and recruiting, said the artisans it contracts also can sell the products and contribute their own designs, which will earn them further commissions.

Awarded second place was Jack Bragg Shoes, founded by Andrew Denton, 22.

Denton's project is to make shoes from recycled materials. One material is reinforced two-ply vinyl that's first used in billboards. Denton also makes umbrellas from the sturdy material. He also is exploring what he calls "up-cycling" leather remnants from tanneries.

At The Iceberg, Denton displayed two pair of "repurposed" men's leather lace-up shoes, one was conventional black, and the other can be called unique with green and purple blotches on white. 

He notes that a major tannery in the Tulsa area could sell him remnants. Denton is learning about cobbling shoes from Broke Dog Custom Boots of West Fork.

Jack Bragg is a fictional 19th-Century character, Denton said, representing humble beginnings with compassion as success is found. Denton's company donates 25% of its profits to humanitarian charities.

While one might expect startup businesses of the 21st century would generally be online enterprises, only three of the finalists were directly high-tech.

One of them, MoreThanAReview.com, earned third place. Its founder, Donna Feyen, 44, has created a book review website that uses "crowd-sourcing" to find critics. They critique story line and characters but also grade stories on violence, substance abuse, sex and rough language. More Than A Review's slogan is "Be surprised by plot twists, not offensive content."

The Iceberg is a co-working project where entrepreneurs, web designers and others share office or studio space and related amenities. The Iceberg is run by the Northwest Arkansas Entrepreneur Alliance, which is a sponsor of the local StartUp Cup.

Besides the alliance, the NWA StartUp Cup is sponsored by the Northwest Arkansas Community College Institute for Entrepreneurial Studies.

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The remaining four finalists are:
• Dummy Drummy, Johnathan Mwaba, which sells a state-of-the-art lifeboat;
• Chez l’ Hair, Carla Thompson, customized wigs and hair extensions;
• Tackle Tronics, John Lockwood, a map-based mobile app to help politicians target voters; and,
• Geek Mapper, Stephen Ritterbush, a social media tool to coordinate with friends but also to locate entertainment conventions and celebrities.

No cash awards were given because this was the competition's first year, Nkokheli said. Still, all seven finalists received the equivalent of $200 of time or amenities at The Iceberg.

Feyen as third-place winner received 10 hours of mentoring from specialists associated with the Northwest Arkansas Entrepreneur Alliance (worth $2,500), Denton 20 hours ($5,000) and Garrett 30 hours ($7,500).

Garrett also will get air fare to an international StartUp Cup conference to be held next year in California's Silicon Valley. All three also will get publicity pictures of themselves and their products from a photography studio.

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