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Mistakes made, lessons learned through Inner City Capital Connections

Inner City Capital Connections (ICCC) provides a wealth of opportunities and educational resources to inner city businesses that help them expand sustainably while creating more jobs and opportunity in their neighborhoods. These companies all have something in common besides participating in this unique program: they are operated by a diverse group of dedicated entrepreneurs, who work tirelessly to see their businesses succeed. At 2017 ICCC culminating conference, hundreds of these entrepreneurs ventured to New York to share their challenges and triumphs in the interest of learning from each other.

One of these businesses, Ovtene, was launched in Italy in 2008 by CEO Alberto Tomasini. While living in Italy, the amount of food waste he saw inspired him to create a product that would help the environment as well as help consumers preserve the food they purchased. Partnering with a professor of food technology at the University of Udine Food Sciences, they started to think about what the best packaging might be, and thought of nature as the perfect environment from which to take their inspiration. They settled on the eggshell, because it was able to house and nurture an animal, and used it to create a unique material that is gas-permeable but resistant to liquids. Tomasini soon learned that the product worked with everything from cheese to meat and vegetables, allowing them all to have a longer life as a fresh product. Following success in the European market, he planned to bring it to the United States, with Boston-based President Salvatore Giglia heading up US operations.

As in many cases where an entrepreneur is excited to get a product to market, they made mistakes at first. They found that though they have a great product, much more was required to compete in the crowded US food products market. Tomasini said that one clear issue was his knowledge of the US market, because “the European market is an entirely different animal.” Giglia said that many people they spoke to “gave them the run-around,” forcing them to lose time and money while not always getting beneficial answers to their questions. It was then that Alberto, after hearing about the program from an alumnus, enrolled in ICCC to help Ovtene with its expansion into the US.

The alumnus told Tomasini that ICCC would not only be interesting but also honest and helpful. He promised it would assist them in developing skills they wanted and needed after they “made a lot of mistakes, met the wrong people, and lost some money” the previous year. They found the program, which includes capacity-building executive education and coaching, to be enormously revealing, with Tomasini saying that they had finally “found someone to teach us how to the make the right decisions.” Giglia added that, as someone not from the food industry, what ICCC gave him was the ability to pick up the phone and say “I need help,” knowing that there would be a trustworthy advisor on the other end, without him having to ask how much an hour it was going to cost.

Both Tomasini and Giglia had to learn that, in their words, “people won’t buy a product just because it works.” Tomasini added that “the product is only one part of the business; you have to be present, you need distribution, you need inventory, you need sales, you need people that believe in you.” What they found was people to not only believe in them, but to help them with everything else on the list. “After the first ICCC training day, we decided to change our strategy and from that time we started to grow day by day,” Tomasini said. Giglia called the product a great “return on the investment of their time,” and found it particularly helpful on things like social media, financing, scaling, and brick and mortar solutions. He added that they received help in a number of other areas, saying, “I could make a list that runs forever. Every time [we learned something] we went “oh!”

Though they still see themselves fighting an uphill battle, especially as a new company trying to break into an established market of bigger distributors. However Tomasini and Giglia learned the strategies and developed a framework they needed to get their foot in the door. While many companies are searching for a buyout, Ovtene was hopeful following the ICCC culminating conference about raising capital so that they can, according to Giglia, pursue the dream of getting the company to work “rather than get bought out and thrown in the closet.”

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