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Three promising startup entrepreneurs each received $10,000 in seed money for their business after winning the City of Houston’s 11th Annual Liftoff Houston Startup Business Plan Competition. Nine finalists, selected from more than 100 applicants, competed in Liftoff’s Pitch Day on November 18, 2023 in three categories: Service, Product, and Innovation, pitching their business ideas to a panel of expert judges.


The 2023 $10,000 winners are: 

  • Teria Johnson: Charleston Kitchen, offering sweet and savory pies, inspired by Teria’s Gullah Geechee culture. Currently operating as an e-commerce company, Charleston Kitchen’s plans to open a brick-and-mortar restaurant. 
  • Zoey Barker and Mohammadmehdi Mortazavi: ExoBraced created ExoBak, a non-powered light-weight exoskeleton designed to help manual workers prevent lower back injuries and pain, while helping businesses reduce injury rates, high labor turnover, and unnecessary compensation expenses. 
  • Giovanni Garza: Classic Borrego Retail, dedicated to offering high-quality, handcrafted artisanal cowboy boots. As part of its long-term plan, the company aims to expand its presence by opening a brick-and-mortar store in the heart of Houston.

Runners-up were awarded $500 each:  

  • Francesca Bonaduce De Nigris: Intrecci by Francesca collaborates with artisans around the world, to deliver one-of-a-kind handmade rugs, including antique, vintage, and contemporary rugs, kilims, and textiles that are expressions of the people who created them as well as of the places where they were created. 
  • Diana Tudela and Hailee Trombley:  The Goodest Goodbye, redefining pet aftercare through cutting-edge, environmentally conscious water cremation (aquamation) and heartfelt farewell services for pet owners. 
  • Diane Nguyen: Flourishing Nexus LLC, aims to develop a dynamic virtual platform that unites health professionals worldwide, fostering professional networking, collaboration, and the global dissemination of knowledge and expertise, ultimately elevating the standard of patient care.

The public was invited to attend in person or view the competition live, on HTV Houston Television or by livestream on Facebook, and vote for their Fan Favorites. Classic Borrego, The Goodest Goodbye, and Flourishing Nexus received the most community votes, winning the Fan Favorite title and a cash prize of $500 each. 


2023 Houston Liftoff judges were: Jennifer Dale; LiftFund, Adriana Gonzalez; Chamber of Latin Entrepreneurs of Houston, Anthony Lopez; PeopleFund, Daniel Luu; America’s Small Business Development Center, Kyra Hardwick; The Kyra Company, Sandra Louvier; HCC Center for Entrepreneurship, Kiley Summers; SpenDebt, Grace Rodriguez, ImpactHub Houston, Kym Adams; The Business Team.


“The program is especially significant as data collected from recent competitions shows Liftoff Houston made an impact on populations that have been historically marginalized.” said Mayor Sylvester Turner. “More than 90% of participants identified as people of color, more than 70% were female, 44% had no college degree, and 54% earned less than $50,000 a year.” 


The annual Liftoff Houston competition is sponsored by Capital One Bank and administered by the Houston Public Library (HPL) and the Office of Business Opportunity (OBO). Capital One Bank has given more than $330,000 in prizes for aspiring entrepreneurs since Liftoff Houston’s inception.


Of all competition finalists over the 11 years, 33 winners started businesses in retail, merchandise, consulting, software, hardware, hospitality, health and wellness, education, finance, technology, and logistics. 


“The Houston Public Library (HPL) wishes all the finalists the very best. Liftoff Houston continues to be an outstanding program that is helping people from all over the city realize their goal of starting their own business.” said HPL Director Dr. Rhea Lawson. “HPL is proud to be part of the program, and we remain committed to providing access to great, free business resources and services for anyone wanting to learn more about entrepreneurship.” 


“Liftoff Houston – and our finalists – have also made it this far because of our workshop partners, all who have given us the invaluable gift of their time.” said OBO Director Marsha Murray. “The business, financial, legal and marketing education they have provided has allowed our participants to plan a roadmap to their success, including the creation of viable business plans.” 


All who completed the Liftoff Houston competition attended nearly four months of required workshops and met with business and financial mentors. They also submitted business plans which were reviewed and judged by representatives from SCORE Houston. Participants also leveraged free business resources from the Houston Public Library and the Office of Business Opportunity to complete market research, develop marketing plans, and to create viable business plans. In addition to the competition, Liftoff Houston also featured the Educational Pathway, which extended the business education opportunities to all interested, including those not ready to compete as well as participants who did not meet eligibility requirements to compete. 


For more information about Liftoff Houston, go to

Lisa Carrico

Applications are now open for the Liftoff Houston Startup Business Plan Competition, where three winners will each receive $10,000 in seed money to fund their dreams of entrepreneurship. Applications must be received by 2 p.m. on Friday, August 19.  

The competition, which celebrates its 10th anniversary this year, is sponsored by Capital One Bank and administered by the Houston Public Library (HPL) and the Office of Business Opportunity (OBO). Since its inception, Capital One has invested more than $280,000 in startup funding to winners in three categories – Innovation, Product and Service. 

“For 10 years, Liftoff Houston has empowered participants to achieve financial mobility through entrepreneurship,” said Mayor Sylvester Turner. “They have become key drivers to the success of Houston’s economy, and they have contributed to our communities by creating jobs and by providing much-needed goods and services.”

Mayor Sylvester Turner, joined by HPL Deputy Director Nicole Robinson, Capital One Bank Market President Yasmin Huebinger, and OBO Director Marsha Murray, recognized Liftoff Houston alumni who have grown their businesses past the startup phase: 2019 Service Category winner Sherhara Downing of SpeakHaus and business partner Christa Clarke, 2016 Service Category winner Jennifer Thai of Awesome Bites Co., and 2018 Innovation Category winner Alphonso Roundtree of Social Bevy.

To be eligible for the competition, applicants must live and operate their businesses within the city limits of Houston. The business should be for-profit, in operation for less than one year, and have verifiable revenue that does not exceed $10,000. Those who are not eligible to compete can participate in the Educational Pathway, which allows access to all educational and mentorship components of the program. 

Upon acceptance into Liftoff Houston, participants attend workshops over a 4-month period that cover essential business topics including business planning, marketing, financing and pitching. Participants also receive additional support by professional mentors from SCORE Houston and Capital One Bank to further refine their business plans, which are required to advance to the final round of the competition. The event culminates to Pitch Day on November 5, where three businesses in each contest category are selected to present their business plan to a panel of judges. All who fulfill requirements of the Educational Pathway receive a certificate of completion. 

“This year’s milestone competition will prove to be another exciting year of opportunity for Houstonians who are ready to move their plans of business ownership forward,” said HPL Director Dr. Rhea Brown Lawson. “We are pleased to join OBO, Capital One and a host of other partners in supporting their development and dreams through the provision of free library services and access to business and investment reference resources, state-of-the-art technology, and high-speed Wi-Fi.”

Since its inception, more than 15,000 individuals have participated in Liftoff Houston. Of all competition finalists, 27 winners have started businesses in retail, merchandise, labor, consulting, software, hardware, market businesses, hospitality, tourism, health and fitness, education, finance, technology, and logistics. 

Data collected from the 2021 competition showed Liftoff Houston made an impact in populations that have been historically marginalized. Of all participants, 96% identified as people of color, 70% were female, 56% had no college degree, and 41% made below $30,000. 

In 2021, all winners were women:

•    Alina Kravchenko of TonerBum (Innovation), a patented glute and leg-toning dumbbell ergonomically designed to fit behind the back of the leg; 
•    Krystle Hodge of SafetyKay, LLC (Product), comprising safety kits and videos that teach children critical safety skills; and 
•    Clara Orlean of ClaraTech (Service), in-person technology training that assists older adults with technology consulting sessions and workshops.  

“As we celebrate a decade of Liftoff Houston, we look forward to making an even greater impact for Houston’s aspiring entrepreneurs,” said OBO Director Marsha Murray. “This competition will provide you with a clear roadmap to help you achieve your goals of succeeding as a small business owner.”

To apply for Liftoff Houston, go to You can follow @liftoffhouston on Facebook and Instagram.

Field is required.