A musician and activist who is also doing environmentally sustainable alchemy. A food startup that prepares healthy meals for New Haveners who don’t have the time—or the desire—to cook. A dynamic photography duo ready to document the city’s wildest fantasies. A theater collective that plans to buck the scarcity mindset and put equity center stage.
Those are among the 10 ventures that presented at Collab’s fall 2020 accelerator pitch day Wednesday night, in a Zoom presentation emceed by Venture Managers George Black and Ndubisi Okeke. The group includes burgeoning chefs, interior designers, recreational therapists, disability advocates, multimedia artists, wine connoisseurs and more. This year, the organization’s work with the cohort has been entirely virtual due to COVID-19.
“We’ve been working to orient ourselves to this new, challenging landscape and plan for the now, and also for the future,” said Collab Co-Founder and Co-Director Margaret Lee. “For the past 11 weeks, these teams have been working really hard to refine their ideas, create relationships with our technical service providers and advisors, walking through an entrepreneurship 101 curriculum, and meeting weekly with our venture managers to make progress.”
The 10 ventures include Honey Catering, Kelewele, rsgrdn, More Than Walking, Dragon Haven, Sankofa Interior Design, The Notorious P.I.C., Health Equity Analytical Lens (HEAL), Outerhaven Wine, and the Midnight Oil Collective. Read more about all of them here.
In just under two hours, fledgling entrepreneurs took the screen by storm. Honey Catering Founder Isha Norris warmed up the crowd with her venture, a meal prep service designed for New Haveners who are health conscious but find themselves too busy to cook. After living and working in New Haven for over 20 years, she’s hoping it will be both her culinary home base and launching pad.
During her presentation, Norris explained that she looked to national trends when building her business model. She saw that people were ordering billions of takeout meals per year, a trend that has continued during COVID-19. Women were continuing to work during their pregnancies, and new moms didn’t always have the time and space to let their bodies heal from childbirth. At the same time, Americans were investing more in health and fitness. Something clicked.
“I really want to share my passion with the people of New Haven and assist my neighbors with their efforts to lead healthy lives,” she said. “It can be hard to always eat healthy. People are only getting busier.”
That’s where Honey Catering steps in, she explained. Norris loves inventing in the kitchen: she’s been a baker, barista, and bartender in the city for years. One of those experiments led her to the “Isha Curry,” a mix of cauliflower, chickpeas, cilantro, grilled chicken and gold-tinted coconut curry served over basmati rice. Another led her to chocolate peanut butter energy bites that one of her clients now saves as a treat for two of her young daughters.
Her business runs on a weekly subscription service through which people can purchase a “menu pack” of five vegan or non-vegan meals. Because she prepares everything herself, Norris offers to work with her customers to customize meals for dietary needs and specific allergies. Each pack runs $105 per person.
Wednesday, she said that she still needs to find kitchen space, build clientele and connections with local farmers, and find places to advertise. Her long-term goal is to operate out of her own storefront, where she is able to sell desserts individually and offer food education classes.
“Of course there are other meal prep and meal kit options out there, but Honey Catering is for the people of New Haven,” she said. “It’s a local meal prep service. And I want my customers to feel like they’re calling their mom to save them a plate of dinner.”
Other entrepreneurs focused on rest, renewal and environmental stewardship as self-care. Ruth Onyirimba, an activist, organizer, and musician who also performs as Ro Godwynn, launched rsgrdn (pronounced Ro’s Garden) earlier this year, as COVID-19 shuttered businesses and enforced quarantines across New Haven.
In May, she started with just a few friends and colleagues as customers. By now, she’s doing pop-ups and selling to local cooperative efforts. The business specializes in a line of plastic-free skincare products meant to center "Black women, femmes, nonbinary folks, and activists." As she spoke, praise filled the chat box to the left. Camila Güiza-Chavez thanked her for clearing up her eczema.
Onyirimba explained that she started rsgrdn with two concerns in mind. The first was—and continues to be —the amount of plastic, non-biodegradable waste polluting mother earth. Or in her words, “the plastic waste on this bus is astronomical.”
The second is a “culture of constant striving”—the sense that activists and organizers must keep moving forward at all costs, including to their own physical, mental, and emotional health. Onyirimba has experienced firsthand how that weight falls disproportionately on Black women and activists, who are often one in the same. It runs counter to the idea of rest as resistance.
She’s also watched as the mainstream beauty and skincare market advertises hundreds of “self-care” remedies to white women, but not to people who look like her.
“I’ve created a line of skincare products that simplify self-care and planet care and makes it easy and accessible,” she said. “The reason why I’m focusing on Black women, femmes, and nonbinary folks is because the bigger sustainability and wellness brands simply are not. They’re very, very white and focus on cisgender women. And a lot of us don’t see ourselves in no Patagonia, girl.”
Currently, her line consists of a grapefruit and rosemary soap, a CBD-infused lavender soap, and a shea butter salve. All of her products are tested, made with seven or fewer ingredients, and wrapped in biodegradable material. While she acknowledged that there are similar small businesses in the city—2018 Collab venture Pascale’s Body Care, for instance—she said she sees them as “co-conspirators” rather than competitors.
“A lot of us feel like we don’t get to sleep or eat or care for ourselves until the war is won,” she said. “But movements and protests are spaces not only to fight for change, but to actively practice liberation. And we deserve to live out our lives and our values of rest and peace and freedom here today.”
To grow, she is looking for both sales and grants, as well as more space. She added that she’s ready to network—she wants to talk not only to potential customers, but potential collaborators, local foragers and farmers, and funders who may be interested in supporting the business.
“Unilever? Girl, we’re coming for you,” she said. “Period.”
The Notorious P.I.C. Co-Founders Chris Randall and Teresa Joseph. Zoom.
This year, several of the organization’s ventures are also artists and creators, from those exploring diasporic foodways to teams probing new and nontraditional theater spaces. Presenting just after 7 p.m., longtime photographer Chris Randall and Creative Director Teresa Joseph rolled out The Notorious P.I.C., a New Haven-based photo booth that they hope to turn into a mobile studio and thriving citywide business.
After falling in love with each other during a photo shoot—they are partners in work and in life—Randall and Joseph said the business felt like a logical next step. It launched earlier this year, after a Mardi Gras photo shoot at the New Haven Free Public Library and shortly before COVID-19 hit New Haven. When quarantine caused business to take a nosedive, the two adapted. They now offer elopement shoots (both are justices of the peace), staged photoshoots, and socially distanced collaborations.
“We are a representation of what we want Notorious P.I.C. to do for others,” Joseph said. “Because of our expertise and who we are, we have had the chance to have fun and even heal through photo shoots. Notorious P.I.C. creates photographic experiences to celebrate, tell a story, or change the narrative. Instead of waiting for moments to capture, we create them.”
Like Onyirimba, the two see their venture as a way to practice and capture self-care. Randall likened the business to a steady drumbeat, where musicians have to listen for the silent pauses, stutters, and gaps between bursts of sound. Life is about those gaps, he said. Someone should still be there to document them.
“We believe in the full expression of the human experience, and that every aspect of who you are deserves a voice,” Joseph said. “Our passion is to create portals for immersive play, a temporary escape from the mundane, from the reality of what is, to the possibility of what could be. A place that only exists in the imagination.”
As they spoke, Randall and Joseph displayed examples of their work. In one image, a couple laughed, holding hands on a picnic blanket as a drone photographed them from above. In another, a model posed sassily in a big coat against industrial white columns. In a third, a group of friends gathered in boas and colorful masks in what is now a pre-pandemic memory.
Wednesday, the two announced that they are working toward the “Mo-Pho,” a trailer or van that can hold equipment, travel to shoots, and double as a mobile photo studio. They said they are excited to continue collaborating with clients, organizations and corporate partners around New Haven and beyond.
“We live this,” Randall said. “Every picture. Every word. It’s our life.”
Collab is also working with The Midnight Oil Collective, a group of theater makers and artists who are also direct investors in the work they produce. At the forefront of their mission is a focus on equity, economic justice, and creative process that theaters often profess to have, but rarely deliver on.
“It’s no surprise that our industry constantly battles burnout, which means that we lose the voices of thousands of talented artists,” said Edwin Joseph, a co-founder and graduate student at the Yale School of Music. “The ones that make it are the ones who can afford to hang around. Often, white and male. Undergirding all of this is a completely broken market.”
Currently, the collective functions at three levels of development. Artists join during an “incubation” period and receive a project budget and weekly meetings with fellow makers in their “pod” or cohort. In a following “development” phase, artists bring their work before an audience—right now that looks like YouTube—to test it out and keep creating. In a final “production” phase, the collective partners with artists, distribution partners, producers and theaters to get a work out into the world.
The mission is meant to break through a current system of theater that is still dictated by donors and deep-pocketed creators who are often white, male, and cisgender. To date, the group has secured $500,000 in seed funding. Most of its founding members are current students and graduates of the Yale School of Music and Yale School of Drama.
The model, which relies heavily on advertising and subscription from academic partners, is run as an equally shared worker cooperative.
“In other words, we are our own investors, creating the space and structure we need to do our best work,” said co-founder Emily Roller. “We trust our artists with full artistic control over their work, and support them with a three-tiered process.”
The collective’s first season has already started, with five in-process videos already available on YouTube. Another five works are in the works for a second season that will begin in March 2021.
“We believe that liberated artists can liberate art,” said co-founder Frances Pollock. “The need is great, and it will take a collective effort to address. That said, we are willing to burn the midnight oil to get there.”