Staff photo by C.B. Schmelter / The Veggie founder Adyre Mason sets up samples of food during the Will This Float?: Female Founders Edition competition at Miller Plaza on Monday, Oct. 21, 2019 in Chattanooga, Tenn. Mason won the competition and the $3,000 prize.

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Female-led startups

An engineer who cashed out her 401K to turn her passion for vegan comfort food into a thriving business took home the top prize in the Will This Float? pitch competition on Monday night.

"I'm shocked. This is my first pitch competition," said Adyre Mason, who launched The Veggie two years ago in Huntsville, Ala. "Maybe I'll do some more now."

The competition, a Startup Week mainstay, gives fledgling businesses a boost with $3,000 in funding for the winner, $2,000 for the second place finisher, and $1,000 for the people's choice pick. This year's competition featured female founders and a partnership with EnrichHER, which connects women to the capital and networks to grow their businesses.

"There are 1,800 women each day launching businesses, and over 80% of them make it to year two," said Tiara Zolnierz, head of business development for EnrichHER and one of the judges of the pitch competition.

Will This Float? featured eight female entrepreneurs who have launched businesses that run the gamut from artisanal pies and recycling services to an app that helps people find overnight accommodations when they are traveling with horses.

The competition gave each entrepreneur just a few minutes to pitch their vision to a panel of judges. Honing that message into a tight set of talking points is a real challenge, said Briana Garza, founder of the Chatt Taste Food Tour, which took home the people's choice award.

"How do you describe your life project in three minutes?" she said before the event. The tasting tour business Garza leads launched in September and sold out the first 60 days immediately. The pitch competition on Monday night was her first foray into fundraising. "We are brand new to the pitch scene," Garza said.

Will This Float? The Female Founders Edition

Blue Skies Curbside Recycling provides residential and commercial single-stream curbside recycling pick-up services for rural areas where municipalities do not offer these services.
Founder: Anne Montgomery

Chatt Taste Food Tour showcases the essence of Chattanooga Cuisine for visitors with limited time in the city by visiting 3-4 restaurants in one evening on a guided tour. Took home the people’s choice award.
Founder: Briana Garza

Crafter Perfecter is a glove that eases discomfort and provides pain relief for everyday crafters.
Founder: Monique Evans

Horse Away is a streamlined app and website where people traveling with horses can easily find and reserve overnight accommodations for their horse.
Founder: Paige Shackelford

Mama Crunk’s Pies offers scratch-baked and artisanal pies, pastries and catering.
Founder: Christine “Crunk” Nguyen

The Veggie specializes in vegan comfort food served through fully prepared meal delivery, catering and personal chef services, and wholesale partnerships. First-place award winner.
Founder: Adyre Mason

Freedom From Laundry LLC provides pick-up and delivery laundry service in the Chattanooga & North Georgia area. Second-place award winner.
Founder: Aprill Ashley

Southern Spooning LLC produces small batch, made-from-scratch chocolate sauce.
Founder: Lauren Zilen

The female focus of the event made this a particularly appealing opportunity, said Lauren Zilen, the founder of Southern Spooning. "That's the biggest honor of being in it," Zilen said.

Zilen's chocolate sauce startup did a soft launch over the holidays last year, selling jars of the confection at Niedlov's Breadworks, which her family also owns. She launched Southern Spooning with her mother using a recipe from her grandmother, Zilen said.

"It's our family business, so we're just sharing the story of our family," she said. "This is our first pitch competition and our first pitch ever."

Christine Nguyen, the "Mama Crunk" behind Mama Crunk's Pies, launched her business in 2016, and has benefited from the Kiva fundraising program, which connects entrepreneurs to interest-free loans through online lenders. Progress has been slow but steady as she grows Mama Crunk's into a major player on the pie scene, Nguyen said.

"We've been sort of a rag-tag team over the years, and I feel proud that people know us around town," she said.

Her bakery business is all women, and being part of the female founders edition of Will This Float? was especially appealing, Nguyen said.

"It's fun to see all the different women doing their own thing," she said.

Contact Mary Fortune at or 423-757-6653. Follow her on Twitter at @maryfortune.