Five Businesses Awarded Funds from Adaptability Challenge

Five Businesses Awarded Funds from Adaptability Challenge

Small businesses have been hit especially hard during the pandemic. More than 100,000 across the country have permanently shut down due to the economic crisis. Given the challenges so many have faced over the past few months, Teachers Credit Union (TCU) was determined to support small businesses that were struggling to adapt, diversifying their products and pivoting to new ways of reaching customers.

The TCU Innovate! Business Challenge rewarded the best ideas from the credit union’s business members. TCU provided a total of $35,000 to five winning entries in the challenge, each a small business that adjusted in creative ways to endure the difficult pandemic conditions.

“The coronavirus pandemic has created economic conditions that have forced businesses and nonprofits to make unexpected adjustments — and this competition has highlighted just how well they have adapted,” said Paul Marsh, TCU’s President and CEO. “Our business members have shown great innovation in their operations, products and services, and we’re proud to support some of the best ideas.”

 

LEARNING ON THE FLY

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Certell.org.

Because of the pandemic, many educators and students were suddenly forced into virtual classrooms. That presented an opportunity for Certell.org, an Indianapolis developer of online courses and educational materials.

Certell, which received $15,000 as the winner of the TCU Innovate! Business Challenge, knows the terrain of using technology to augment education. The donor-supported nonprofit has provided free materials to teachers since 2015, but the pandemic inspired overwhelming interest in Certell’s offerings and added urgency to educators’ needs.

“As we upped the amount of time spent helping teachers, we were also hearing their stories, and started some podcasts,” said education consultant and Certell founder Fred Fransen.

The organization began producing Certell Connects, a podcast focused on teachers helping teachers navigate the shift to remote instruction. Certell also created Bell Ringers, a series of brief multimedia lessons that related coronavirus-related issues to health and economic crises of the past.

The pandemic also prompted Certell to accelerate products in development, such as a new dashboard that providing information for teachers about student progress on assigned materials, facilitating more personalized instruction.

 

PASSING INSPECTION

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Bamar Plastics.

South Bend-based manufacturer Bamar Plastics received $5,000 from the TCU Innovate! Business Challenge for the development of The Step Saver, an automated, customizable mobile cart outfitted with quality-control instruments.

The idea for The Step Saver had been percolating for years with Bamar developing a prototype that added significant efficiency to its inspection process, reducing a two-hour task to 45 minutes, an obvious boon to its business. Only after the pandemic hit did the product’s growth potential become a priority for the company.

The Step Saver features an antimicrobial plastic surface, a battery that lasts through an eight-hour workday, and adaptability to be useful in numerous manufacturing sectors. It’s also sturdy enough to withstand a collision with a forklift. Leaders from various industries offered input that Bamar plans to incorporate to refine the inspection tool.

“The Step Saver will continue to evolve,” Bamar president and CEO Heather Meixel says. “We want to incorporate more technology. What I see is a product line, probably five or six different kinds of carts, and then customizable options. It’s pretty exciting.”

 

COOKING UP A NEW PLAN

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Scarpe.

Upscale Italian restaurant Scarpe had been open in downtown Valparaiso for less than a year when the pandemic forced the business to shut down.

“We needed to innovate and evolve or our restaurant was going to die,” said Katrina Shoemaker, who runs the restaurant with her husband, Chris. “It was a simple choice.”

Scarpe’s creative evolution earned the restaurant $5,000 in the TCU Innovate! Business Challenge. The Shoemakers, along with their son Adam, Scarpe’s sommelier and beverage director, and his partner, Olivia Fissé, the executive chef, reconfigured their offerings — and fast.

Scarpe’s soft drink cooler — emptied of its two-liter bottles — became a “to-go fridge” with menu items like lasagna and tiramisu that customers could “take-and-bake” at home, sold through Shoe’s Pizzeria, the family’s other restaurant, which offered carry-out during the shutdown.

Fissé offered her chef’s expertise with Facebook Live videos about making homemade pasta and mozzarella cheese. That not only kept Scarpe connected with customers, it attracted new ones.

“When we reopened, we had people come in and say, ‘I didn’t even know you were here but we saw your videos and we are really interested that you make your own pasta and cheese,’” Adam Shoemaker said. “Our online presence and just showing people who we are, and what we do here has brought in some new people.”

 

SOWING AND REAPING

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Unity Gardens.

Unity Gardens, another $5,000 winner in the TCU Innovate! Business Challenge, promotes physical, social and environmental health. The network of urban plots provides free, healthy food to people in need. Sales of Unity Gardens produce and other locally grown products at the South Bend Farms Market supports the nonprofit’s ability to fulfill its mission.

When the pandemic began, those Farmers Market sales dried up. That forced the South Bend nonprofit to adjust on the fly.

Executive director Sara Stewart and her partner, Mitch Yaciw, increased the amount of food they grew. “Our very first reaction was, ‘People are going to be food insecure,’” Stewart said, and they wanted to help them.

They also predicted that many people would start private gardens and an investment in selling plants and seeds to those envisioned customers proved prescient and provided Unity Gardens with a revenue boost. Adding online tutorials helped people learn how to tend their gardens.

Newly hired “garden guides” directed self-harvesters, hosted kids’ activities, and provided veggie tasting tours, along with lessons in composting and meditation.

Unity Gardens also started offering community-supported agriculture (CSA) memberships, a program that provides fresh, healthy food while supporting the gardens.

The result has been a flourishing of Unity Gardens as a safe, social gathering place.

“One Sunday morning I came out and there was a pastor out there doing his sermon, online, in the garden,” Yaciw said. “He felt like the garden was a place that was uplifting.”

 

TOASTING NEW OPPORTUNITIES

TCU

Sip & Share.

Sip & Share Wines, an Indianapolis purveyor of boutique, artisanal, vegan wine at events, festivals and popups, had stocked up for summer events that would not be happening. A $5,000 winner in the TCU Innovate! Business Challenge, Sip & Share need to find a use for excess supply and a new source of revenue.

Owner Nicole Kearney pivoted to hosting virtual wine tastings, engaging with enthusiasts across the country. Sip & Share shipped bottles to participants in advance with instructions about which wines to chill, suggested cheese pairings and a tasting grid.

“We do the tasting and education with it,” Kearney said. “Oh, it’s super fun.”

As a Black woman business owner, Kearney is passionate about serving overlooked and underrepresented wine lovers to create a more inclusive industry.

“We’re about creating community with wine,” she said. “The advantage is, it allows us to reach such a broader community. We don’t have a tasting room, so pre-pandemic we traveled. Before, we would just be like, ‘We’re going to be in California. We’re going to be at this particular tasting.’  And people would show up.”

The pandemic forced those gatherings to move online, but Sip & Share’s mission continued undeterred.

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