Initiative to diversify STEM employees wins Accelerate civic pitch competition

Accelerate 2022 Finalists and Sponsors

Accelerate 2022 Winning Presenters with Sponsors

Accelerate 2022 Winning Presenters with Sponsors

CLEVELAND – An initiative to encourage young women and people of color to pursue careers in technology was voted the winning pitch by an audience Thursday night (February 24) at the 8th annual Accelerate: Citizens Make Change civic pitch competition presented by the Cleveland Leadership Center in partnership with Citizens and other supporters.

Accelerate returned to an in-person event this year after being held virtually last year due to the pandemic. More than 300 participants gathered at the Global Center for Health Innovation and Huntington Convention Center. Covid precautions were in place, including distribution of masks and hand sanitizer packets as part of Destination Cleveland’s CLEAN COMMITTED program.

“It was great to be back together and to feel the energy and excitement for Cleveland’s future,” said Event Co-Chair Jim Malz, President of Citizens, Ohio, which has been Accelerate’s Presenting Sponsor since 2016. “We’re proud to partner with Cleveland Leadership Center to provide a platform for civic engagement. Like all the presenters and attendees, Citizens is made ready to make a difference in the community.”

Shane Winnyk, of Strongsville, and Courtney Smith, of Lorain, said their winning “Grayter Cleveland” pitch was about helping students reimagine technology careers by seeing people like themselves in the field. Winnyk, who is white, and Smith, who is Black, have worked together in social services and for a software company. They want to create similarly diverse pairs of tech employees to meet with students so they can see diverse people work together. “It’s not about how we look, it’s about how we think, specifically how we think about each other,” they said. They won $5,000 for their pitch, which was in the Education category sponsored by Nordson.

The pitch had been selected as a finalist in one of six competitions organized by category earlier in the evening. Judges who are community leaders with expertise in each topic selected one finalist from among pitches in each category. The other finalists, who each received $2,000, were:

  • Michael Bustamante, of Cleveland Heights, who pitched “Connecting Cleveland.” During a trip to China he experienced the power of intercultural exchanges in creating understanding. He wants to create an interactive and traveling diversity and inclusion exhibit that fosters empathy. The pitch was in the Authentic Cleveland Experiences category sponsored by Destination Cleveland and KJK.
  • India Hobbs, of Cleveland, who pitched “Inner City Trades.” She wants to help families learn about wealth building through stocks. Her program would alleviate income disparities by creating access to knowledge about making sound financial choices. The pitch was in the Economic Prosperity category sponsored by The Lubrizol Corporation and MAGNET: The Manufacturing Advocacy & Growth Network.
  • Amalia Haas, of Beachwood, who pitched “Bee Brave.” She wants to help youth understand and cope with anxiety by engaging them in what for most is an anxiety-provoking activity – beekeeping. Her program would teach basic beekeeping skills and mindfulness, initially for youth but also for others facing anxiety such as trauma survivors. The pitch was in Hthe Health & Well-being category sponsored by Construction Employers Association and Oatey.
  • Marianna Steele, of Shaker Heights, and Lauren Voinovich, of Cleveland Heights, who pitched “Second Chance’s Gretchen.” The two juniors at Hathaway Brown School want to address confusion about what’s recyclable by creating a comprehensive database and app that allow consumers to easily check which household products can be recycled in their community. By taking the guesswork out of recycling, they hope to make the planet greener and cleaner. The pitch was in the Quality of Life category sponsored by Growth Opps and Thompson Hine LLP.
  • Adam King, of Cleveland, who pitched “Jikoo,” which he said is a West African word for bringing people together in a way that makes real and emotional connections. He wants to create a system of small “smart parks” on vacant lots in city neighborhoods that typically have been neglected by investment. The parks would leverage technology and community engagement. The pitch was in the Social Change category sponsored Oswald Companies and Westfield. In addition, King’s pitch won Accelerate’s Technovation Competition in partnership with the Cleveland Foundation and received $3,500 for that competition. Pitches that competed in Technovation were drawn from all Accelerate applications.

For the fourth year, the Burton D. Morgan Foundation sponsored a Teen Entrepreneur Showcase that grew out of the winning Accelerate 2018 pitch to support the endeavors of young business people. Five teen businesses shared their stories and sold products ranging from beauty supplies and hand-painted door mats, to material to help stop bullying created by a student who had been bullied. Jackson Lewis P.C. sponsored a Past Presenters Showcase that demonstrated the ongoing impact Accelerate pitches have had over the years.

All 25 inspiring ideas pitched at Accelerate have the potential to grow and make a positive impact on Cleveland, said Leadership Center President and CEO Marianne Crosley. “Everyone, not just the finalists, gains exposure for their ideas and opportunities for networking and support to help them succeed,” she said.

Mike Obertacz, Andrea Peck, ECDI, Eureka! Ranch, and ioby provided support for presenters. In-kind event support was provided Graham + Fisk’s Wine-In-A-Can, Storehouse Tea, Weiss Movers and Storage, and Zinner & Co.

Cleveland Leadership Center launched Accelerate in 2015 as its signature annual event to support the Center and to promote social innovation. Presenters, from across Northeast Ohio, have represented a broad diversity of age, race, gender identity, and background. Among this year’s 32 presenters, 53% are women, 50% are people of color, 19% are teenagers, and 23% identify as LGBTQ+. Presenter age varied from 7 to 71.

Accelerate has been a catalyst for ideas that impact everyone from pre-kindergarteners to senior citizens. Dozens of projects have become reality in the months and years after being presented. Updates on past pitches are at

Background and links to full pitch descriptions:
Twitter: #AccelerateNEO, @CitizensBank, @cleveleads
Facebook: @cleveleads, @CitizensBank
Instagram: @cleveleads @citizensbank


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