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Staff Photo by Matt Hamilton / Tommy Nix presents a check to Briana Garza on Tuesday, October 19, 2021 at the Bessie Smith Cultural Center. The Tennessee Valley Federal Credit Union sponsored the Idea Leap pitch competition on Tuesday.

Briana Garza scored a $21,000 grant for her Chatt Taste Food Tour during the annual Idea Leap competition Tuesday, putting in motion plans to expand the ground her business can cover, as well as the number of other small businesses she can help support.

"Chattanooga is full of talent, and Chatt Taste represents 46 local businesses," Garza said during her pitch to the six judges. "We have given $55,000 back to those businesses since we started."

Chatt Taste was one of five small businesses that won $58,000 in grants from the Tennessee Valley Federal Credit Union during the fourth annual Idea Leap event, helping entrepreneurs fund wish lists that run the gamut from a native plant nursery to playground equipment.

It was the largest amount given in the history of the event, which has become a staple of the city's annual Startup Week.

"The pandemic does impact small businesses who are the lifeblood of our community, so we wanted to help them as much as we possibly could," said credit union spokesperson Jessica McCosh.

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Idea Leap grants fund small business wish lists


Champion Christian Learning Academy owner Cynthia Evans won $15,000 for her growing daycare and preschool, which she opened in 2017 with four children, including one of her own. Now the school on Brainerd Road serves 98 children, and has a staff of 21, Evans told the judges.

The pandemic forced big changes, from curbside drop-offs to intensified professional cleaning, but it did not shut the school down, Evans said.

"CCLA did not close. Instead, we became a hub for other centers that had to close," Evans said. "The best thing for children in a pandemic, in any traumatic event, is normalcy."

The winner of a $10,000 grant, Wild Violet Permaculture began in early 2020 with two guys and a wheelbarrow, said co-founder Bryant Hawkins. The pandemic drove demand for their business as people dug in at home, and explored more native and environmentally sound landscaping options, he said.

"Our work grew exponentially," he said, adding that he and co-founder Nathaniel Bankhead have teams working in eight counties, and have "pulled out acres of invasive species."

That growth has come with no marketing, he added. "We have been exclusively word-of-mouth," Hawkins said.

As the pandemic took hold, Wild Violet focused on employing people who had lost their jobs, Bankhead said. The company partners with other local small businesses, and pays a living wage, he added.

With their grant money, Wild Violet plans to invest in its nursery and composting program, as well as educational materials for clients and staff, the business owners said.

There were more than 150 applications for the Idea Leap competition, which was hosted outdoors this year on the lawn at the Bessie Smith Cultural Center.

Organizers whittled those 150 down to 26 quarter-finalists who were invited to submit a five-minute video, and the judges picked a top 10 and did virtual site visits with them this summer, McCosh said.


The finalists

$21,000 grant winner and People’s Choice finalist: Chatt Taste Food Tours, LLC

Location: Chattanooga

Owner: Briana Garza

Established: 2019

Grant Wishes: To build out the region’s first electric mobile dining car, an elevated dining room on wheels.

$15,000 grant winner: Champion Christian Learning Academy

Location: Chattanooga

Owner: Cynthia Evans

Established: 2017

Grant wishes: To purchase furniture, playground equipment and learning curriculum.

$10,000 grant winner: Wild Violet Permaculture, LLC

Location: Signal Mountain

Owners: Nathaniel Bankhead and Bryant Hawkins

Established: 2020

Grant wishes: First, we need to create comprehensive training programs and materials for both our employees and clients. Second, we need to invest in our future native plant nursery on Signal Mountain. Third, we want to scale our compost production and distribution program.

$7,000 grant winner: Salon Posh

Location: Athens, Tenn.

Owner: Allison Stiller

Established: 2018

Grant Wishes: To expand salon creating a space for continued education for license professionals, as well as adding manicure tables, pedicure chairs and treatment rooms so that we can offer more services.

$5,000 grant winner: Lil Mama’s Chicago Style Hoagy

Location: Chattanooga

Owner: Tiffany Pauldon-Banks

Established: 2019

Grant Wishes: To invest in continued staff training, marketing, catering and new equipment.

The judges chose four of the five finalists, and a fifth was chosen through a people's choice voting process, which Chatt Taste won this year, McCosh said.

In years past, businesses have won $50,000 in grants, and there have been prizes as small as $500. This year, the smallest award was $5,000.

Contact Mary Fortune at Follow her on Twitter at @maryfortune.


The judges

Dionne Jenkins, vice president of diversity and inclusion at Tennessee Valley Federal Credit Union, led the judging committee. Judges include:

Vickye Bone, vice president, Urban League of Greater Chattanooga

Jennie DeCook, director, Tennessee Small Business Development Center at Cleveland State Community College

Emily Gilliam, credit analyst, Brightbridge Capital

Charles Fisher, partner/director, Grant, Konvalinka & Harrison, P.C.

Diane Parks, retired director of Leadership Chattanooga, Chattanooga Area Chamber of Commerce

Danielle Landrum, co-owner of Locals Only Gifts and Goods, 2020 Idea Leap Grant Winner & 2021 Celebrity Judge