When MillerCoors invited me to be a judge for a national competition for aspiring urban entrepreneurs, I jumped at the chance. Who wouldn't want to see and hear from ambitious people with big ideas and even larger dreams?
MillerCoors, of course, has multiple motives for its own involvement. While most beverage companies focus on sponsoring sporting events or big parties and galas at nightclubs and bars, MillerCoors started the Urban Entrepreneurs Series more than 13 years ago to "enhance its investments in the multicultural community in new and more meaningful ways," said Steve Canal, manager of community commerce and partnerships.
MillerCoors isn't any different from other companies in its eagerness to win new, diverse consumers. It stands apart from beverage competitors, however, with its interest in fueling creativity, innovation, economic empowerment and the spark that is essential to develop viable and sustainable businesses in urban neighborhoods.
This year the company has cleverly aligned the program with its marquee Miller Lite brand and renamed it Miller Lite Tap the Future, with the tagline "Turning Great Friends into Great Business Partners." It will stage competitions for entrepreneurs 21 and older in Atlanta, Chicago, Dallas, Philadelphia and Phoenix, followed by a national competition in December, pitting the regional finalists against one another for a prize of $250,000. The company has signed Daymond John, the fashion icon, branding guru and celebrity judge on ABC's popular entrepreneur-focused reality show "Shark Tank," to head the regional judging panels.
More than 1,000 aspiring entrepreneurs entered the competition, Canal said. Twenty-five semi-finalists will be announced in September. One from each city will win $20,000 and advance to the finals.
Several previous winners will serve as "inspirational judges" alongside Daymond John. One of these is Nikhil Anora, co-founder of Back to the Roots, an Oakland, Calif.-based company that grew to national prominence by recycling coffee grounds into consumer-friendly, grow-your-own edible mushroom gardens. These helped to create jobs in West Oakland, an area with chronic unemployment. "It's great to see MillerCoors leverage their iconic brand to strengthen the fabric of our communities and help support the next generation of leaders," Anora told me.
Another of these judges is Sulaiman Sanni, co-founder and CEO of WeDidIt, a crowd-funding firm that assists nonprofits to raise capital. credits the MillerCoors program with having honed the company's sales and marketing messages.
Santiago Halty, founder and CEO of Senda, a fair-trade sports equipment company, who is also serving as a judge, adds that the program goes beyond just helping aspiring entrepreneurs. He says it's about creating sustainable business growth, resulting in job opportunities.
"MillerCoors hasn't forgotten that it, too, started as a small business many years ago, with aspirations to bring about products that disrupt the market and provide innovative solutions," said Halty, who sees a natural connection between his core, socially conscious audience and the consumers that Miller Lite is working to reach. "This program contributes to creating an authentic and forward-thinking brand," he told me, "a brand that supports the dreams and aspirations of America's new entrepreneurial generation."
Especially as MillerCoors is taking heat for TV commercials claiming Coors cans are "the world's most refreshing," I'd like to see more marketing like the Urban Entrepreneurs Series.