Initiative to create educational comics wins 10th annual Accelerate competition

Mayor Bibb presents anniversary proclamation

CLEVELAND – Laura Balliett’s idea to make science more accessible to students by using captivating cartoons won the 10th annual Accelerate: Citizens Make Change civic pitch competition Thursday night (February 22, 2024).

Nearly 750 people were part of the event presented by the Cleveland Leadership Center in partnership with Citizens and more than 100 other corporate, foundation, and individual supporters.

Cleveland Mayor Justin M. Bibb, Honorary Chair of the event, presented a 10th Anniversary proclamation at the event to recognize the impact it has had over the years. “Accelerate has been a catalyst for projects that have transformed lives in Cleveland,” the proclamation read.

Accelerate 2024 brought to light 26 initiatives pitched by a diverse group of individuals from across northeast Ohio at the Huntington Convention Center of Cleveland.

“Accelerate pitches remind us how individuals can create the best possible tomorrow for our community – and how each of us can be part of strengthening our community,” said event Co-Chair Jim Malz, President of Citizens, Ohio, which has been Accelerate’s Presenting Sponsor since 2016. “Through our commitment to foster strong communities, we are honored to be a part of this competition and know that we will feel the ripple effect of the lasting impact tonight’s initiatives will have for many years to come.”

The audience voted Balliett’s pitch, “Cool School Comics” as the winner from among five finalists. She received $5,000 for the pitch in the Education category presented in partnership with Nordson. Balliett, a former Lakewood teacher, saw students shut down when presented with large blocks of text. She saw a huge difference when she turned lessons into comic-like graphics.

“Comics have the ability to break down barriers and make learning accessible,” she said. Her creations are not just comics, she explained; they are one-page infographics backed by lessons plans and animated slide shows that use a comics format to convey lessons. Balliett had pitched in the first Accelerate competition, in 2015, with a similar idea.

The other finalists, who each received $2,000, were:

  • Johnathan Jamison and Heavenly Aguilar, who pitched an idea of “Reel People, Real Legacies” to gather unique stories for communities that are unheard or overlooked and share and archive the stories. “Without Reel People, Real Legacies, our stories will continue to die generation after generation,” Aguilar said. The pitch was in the Arts & Culture category presented in partnership with Oswald Companies and Westfield.
  • Ariana Smith, who pitched “M.H.M. Youth Summit” to empower students by addressing their mental health concerns. “The sustainability of our community depends on the mental health of our community,” she said, adding that she hopes to launch the summit this fall. The pitch was in the Health & Well-being category presented in partnership with MAGNET: The Manufacturing and Advocacy Growth Network and The MetroHealth System.
  • Nicholas “Moses” Ngong and Luciana Salles who pitched “Culture.CLE” to create a curated dining experience that partners with immigrant-owned and operated restaurants. Ngong, who is Cameroonian, and Salles, who is Brazilian, want participants to meet with chefs and learn about their culture while they dine. The pitch was in the Social Change category presented in partnership with Centric Consulting.
  • Paula Coggins, whose pitch, “Sew City Quilts,” is about creating an indoor quilt trail that will bring hope to the Lee-Harvard neighborhood. “I believe in the potential of our collaborative minds to pull us up from our bootstraps,” she said of the project, which will foster artistic expression and community building. The pitch was in the Thriving Neighborhoods category presented in partnership with Growth Opps.

Sara Kidner won a special Technovation competition with an initiative called “Micro Scholarship Mentor Match” to help first -generation college students stay in school. Each year, she noted, many drop out because of balances of less than $2,000. “First-generation students need a way to quickly navigate and rebound from this situation,” she said, noting that the project would also help build a community around the student.

Kidner received $3,500 for the Technovation win, as the competition marked its third year at Accelerate in partnership with the Cleveland Foundation. Kidner, Principal of the John Marshall School of Civic and Business Leadership in the Cleveland Metropolitan School District, was the overall winner of Accelerate 2021 with a pitch, “Read Like Me,” to improve literacy among young Black males and promote teaching as a career field for Black males. She has since launched that project and created a pipeline from CMSD to John Carroll University for students who participate and seek careers in education.

In addition to the cash prizes, all five finalists will receive a spot in the 2024 NEO SEA Change cohort for social entrepreneurs and a one-year membership in ECDI, which offers support, resources, and connections. The four runner-up finalists received vouchers for a Flawless Planning Live Workshop.

Ingenuity Cleveland provided special Impact Awards, which they grant to budding entrepreneurs and creatives promoting social impact through creativity and the arts. Winners were Coggin, Jamison and Aguilar, Trayvon Porter, and Tanya Kaiser.

Teen involvement

Lilly Moran and Gabby Ransom of Hathaway Brown School won a special Teen Accelerate competition with an initiative, “Growing Hope,” to provide gardening kits to children in foster care or long-term hospitalization to bring them the joy of nature. They see the kits as a way to give children who might feel hopeless something they can call their own. They received $1,000 and the support of a mentor to help launch the initiative.

Carter Black, Grady Miller, Jack Shaffer, and Tess Bucher of North Canton Hoover High School were the Teen Accelerate runners up and received $500. Their pitch, “Mission Monarch,” is to help stem the population decline of Monarch butterflies. They want to make it easy for people to plant milkweed, a food source for the butterflies and where they lay eggs, and sell plush toys to raise awareness.

Teen Accelerate: Students Make Change, offered in partnership with the Young Entrepreneur Institute, marked its second year as part of Accelerate and featured 10 pitches from students in grades 9-12 across Cuyahoga and neighboring counties. Runners up each received $250. The competition was supported by Burton D. Morgan Foundation.

Teens also had a visible Accelerate presence at the Teen Entrepreneur Showcase and Pop-Up Shop also sponsored by Burton D. Morgan Foundation. It featured four businesses created by youth. In addition to selling their products, they shared their stories.

The Teen Pop-Up Shop was developed after the winning Accelerate 2018 pitch to support the endeavors of young business people, and has been featured at Accelerate each year since then.

10 years of success

A special 10th Anniversary Gallery, along with a Past Presenters Showcase, offered highlights of successful initiatives that Accelerate has launched over the past decade. The gallery, as well as creative elements that enlivened the Convention Center, were sponsored by Lubrizol and Thompson Hine LLP.

CLC President & CEO Marianne Crosley said that most of the 273 initiatives pitched at Accelerate the past 10 years did not come to the competition with a business plan and timeline and were able to launch because of the connections and collaboration that Accelerate fosters.

“We have had more than 5,000 people involved in the event over the years – individuals who are inspired by what they hear and want to help the presenters bring their ideas to reality,” she said. “Accelerate has touched literally tens of thousands of lives and made Cleveland stronger in so many ways.”

To celebrate the anniversary, CLC engaged a prior Accelerate winner to create a video highlighting just some of the many successes over the decade. Digital storyteller Jing Lauengco, who won the Technovation category in 2021, interviewed several other past presenters – all the way back to 2015 – who shared how Accelerated helped launch their projects, and the lives those initiatives have touched.

Cleveland Leadership Center launched Accelerate in 2015 as its signature annual event to support the Center and to promote social innovation. Presenters have represented a broad diversity of age, race, gender identity, and background. Among this year’s presenters, 58% are women, 61% are people of color, and 7% identify as LGBTQ+.

Accelerate 2024 featured a digital program book, video screens with category updates, and additional technology to ensure a more effective and sustainable experience. Technology needs were sponsored by Adcom. The networking reception, during which guests could engage with current and past Accelerate presenters and make other connections, was sponsored by The NRP Group. Valet sponsors were KJK and PwC.

In the months leading up to Accelerate, presenters received training in presentation skills from Andrea Peck of Andrea Peck Communications and Michael Barakiva, Artistic Director of the Cleveland Play House. Notre Dame College hosted presenters for a practice session, and ioby, a grassroots crowdfunding platform, provided its platform for presenters.


Background and links to full descriptions of all pitches:

Media contact
Michael E. Bennett, VP of External Affairs, C: (216) 408-3874, O: (216) 592-2426,