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Hundreds compete for $75K Arch Grants. Mentors can make the difference

Angelica Harris (middle) and the Top Tutors for Us team at the 2023 Arch Grants Startup Competition.
Angelica Harris
Angelica Harris, middle, and the Top Tutors for Us team at the 2023 Arch Grants Startup Competition

Applying to the Arch Grants Startup Competition is a rigorous process. Founders are required to submit a “pitch deck” that details what their company is, the problem their company aims to solve, how they plan to do so and what makes their company unique. Depending on how far they make it in the competition, they also have to present their company to a group of judges in the hopes of winning the coveted $75,000 grant.

Founded in 2013, the competition received over 500 applications last year – with only 22 companies walking away funding. There’s no doubt that the competition is stiff, but a program started by the Olin Business School at Washington University is helping founders gain valuable feedback long before their application materials are seen by Arch Grants judges.

Doug Villhard, professor of practice and academic director for entrepreneurship at Wash U’s Olin Business School, assembled a group of business students in 2023 to offer free mentorship services to Arch Grants hopefuls. Villhard and his students give specific pointers to the entrepreneurs to ensure they are presenting the best version of their company – and themselves – in front of judges.

“These people are great and their ideas are great, but there could be noise in their presentation,” said Villhard. “If we can reduce the noise, now they're really being evaluated for their ideas, not for an accidental communication mistake they made and how they were presenting themselves. By smoothing that out, we're making sure the best ideas are getting picked. And we need the best ideas picked because we need that [economic] growth in St. Louis.”

From left to right: Doug Villhard, Cherise Brookes, and Angelica Harris
Roshae Hemmings
From left: Doug Villhard, Cherise Brookes and Angelica Harris

Last year, Angelica Harris won one of the $75,000 Arch Grants awards for her business Top Tutors for Us. Angelica Harris participated in the mentorship program. The wisdom and expertise of Villhard and his team encouraged Harris to submit her application materials.

“I was ecstatic to know that I was selected for the program,” Harris said. “I knew that the information that [Villhard] and the students would provide would be quite valuable for this very competitive application. What's amazing about these MBA students that evaluated my application [is that] they have quite a lot of experience of putting together pitch decks and VC pitch decks and know what the judges would be looking for.”

Cherise Brookes was a mentor for the program last year, but is now returning as a mentee. The founder of campus safety app For Womanhood is hoping to walk away with a grant at this year’s Startup Competition.

“Angelica is a living representation of the power of the program. We helped her and she was successful last year,” said Brookes. “Having a startup and being from a different country – Antigua and Barbuda – I need all the help that I could get. I know the work that we put in to help so many companies and I want that help, too.”

Villhard and his team are accepting applications until Sunday. Application materials can be submitted to rianedwards@wustl.edu. Arch Grants applications are due March 29.

To learn more about the Arch Grants mentorship program at the Olin Business School, listen to St. Louis on the Air on Apple Podcast, Spotify or Google Podcast, or by clicking the play button below.

Wash U mentors help Arch Grants applicants shine

St. Louis on the Air” brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. The show is produced by Miya Norfleet, Emily Woodbury, Danny Wicentowski, Elaine Cha and Alex Heuer. Roshae Hemmings is our production assistant. The audio engineer is Aaron Doerr. Send questions and comments about this story to talk@stlpr.org.

Correction: This story originally included the incorrect email address to submit Arch Grants mentorship applications.

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Roshae Hemmings is an arts and culture magazine journalist born in Kingston, Jamaica, and raised in St. Louis. In 2022, Roshae graduated from the Missouri School of Journalism, where she wrote for The Maneater, Columbia Missourian and Vox Magazine. After graduating, Roshae went on to write for Denver, Colorado’s city magazine, 5280, before embarking on an unexpected path as a travel writer for DETOUR (which was founded by her mentor and professor, Ron Stodghill). Food, pop culture, travel, and social justice are among some of Roshae’s passions, many of which she explores through her work.