Winning Accelerate pitch addresses mental health in Black community

Accelerate 2023 winner, finalists, and category sponsors

CLEVELAND – Anycia Grady’s plan to increase the number of licensed mental health professionals, especially those serving Black communities, was a double winner Thursday night (February 23, 2023) at the 9th annual Accelerate: Citizens Make Change civic pitch competition presented by the Cleveland Leadership Center in partnership with Citizens and other supporters.

An audience vote named her pitch, “Seeking Supervision,” the overall winning pitch among six finalists. Earlier in the evening, a panel of judges selected it the winning pitch in Accelerate’s Technovation competition for initiatives that leverage technology to address a community problem.

More than 550 people were involved in Accelerate 2023, which brought to light 32 initiatives pitched by a diverse group of individuals from across Cuyahoga and nearby counties at the Huntington Convention Center of Cleveland. Presenters ranged in age from 12 to 72.

Debuting this year was Teen Accelerate: Students Make Change, offered in partnership with the Young Entrepreneur Institute, which featured 12 pitches from students across Cuyahoga and neighboring counties.

“It was inspiring to hear the various presentations focused on ways to strengthen our community,” said Event Co-Chair Jim Malz, Midwest Region Executive & Ohio President, Citizens, which has been Accelerate’s Presenting Sponsor since 2016. “This ongoing partnership among Citizens, the Leadership Center, and so many other organizations and individuals showcases our commitment to creating a thriving, sustainable, inclusive future for our region.”

Grady, of Parma, received $5,000 for winning her pitch in the Health & Well-being category presented in partnership with Growth Opps; and $3,500 for winning the Technovation competition presented in partnership with the Cleveland Foundation.

Grady wants to create an app that will help match those pursuing mental health careers with the supervision required for clinical licensure. It took her eight years to find supervision to receive her LISW, a process that should have taken just two years, she said. In the meantime, there’s a backlog of people who can’t receive needed mental health services, especially as a result of the pandemic, because of a shortage of licensed professionals.

Health & Well-being category sponsor Marcus Glanton of Growth Opps, left, winner Anycia Grady, and Jim Malz of Citizens, Accelerate’s Presenting Sponsor

Other finalists 

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:

  • Myesha Watkins, of Cleveland Heights. Her pitch “Another Homegirl” is to create events that build comradery among Black women in need of healing. “We are connected through our trauma but we can heal through our experiences,” she told the audience. The pitch was in the Cleveland Experiences and Excursions category presented in partnership with Destination Cleveland.
  • Devin H. Cotton, of Oakwood Village. His pitch for “UBE: Universal Basic Employment & Opportunity,” is a public policy initiative to create a pathway to economic prosperity through a thriving wage jobs guarantee. “Let’s put together residents, business owners and others to create the change we need,” he said. The pitch was in the Economic Prosperity category presented in partnership with Boler College of Business at John Carroll University.
  • Stephen M. Prewitt of Sagamore Hills and Keenan Williams of Cleveland Heights. Their “SoundBender Institute” pitch focused on using music to help combat anxiety and depression. Both DJs, they want to teach children the art of being a DJ to improve their mental health. “Music therapy can be more effective than medication in some cases,” Williams said. The pitch was in the Education category presented by Nordson.
  • Nancy Jones of Shaker Heights and Tracy Bellum. Their pitch, “Clean and Beautiful Cleveland … Block2Block” is a two-pronged approach to beautify the city: changing behavior through best practices to beautify areas, and litter cleanup. “Clean communities have less stress and depression, more pride, engage people, and property values go up,” said Bellum, a retired teacher. The pitch was in the Quality of Life category presented in partnership with Oatey Co. and Thompson Hine LLP.
  • Donte D. Jones, of Warrensville Heights. His pitch, “Peer Student Support Services,” would create an app connecting students with peer supporters who have lived experience of the challenges they face. The single father and full-time student, who pitched with his 10-year-old son, Jeremiah, has seen first-hand the positive results of peer support. “This will create a plan of action and get students the resources they need,” he said. The pitch was in the Social Change category presented in partnership with Lubrizol and MAGNET: The Manufacturing and Advocacy Growth Network.

All six finalists received a one-year membership in ECDI, which offers support, resources, and connections to entrepreneurs; and the opportunity to participate in the 2023 NEO SEA Change cohort for social entrepreneurs.

While the six pitches and Technovation competition winner received funding, CLC President & CEO Marianne Crosley characterized all presenters as winners. “All the

Young Entrepreneur Institute Executive Director Ilene Frankel, left, Teen Accelerate winner Ella Witalec and runner-up Anshul Sharma, and YEI Program Coordinator Ariana Smith

presenters had the chance to meet hundreds of community leaders. We have seen over the years that pitches become reality because of that networking and those informal conversations,” she said. CLC also introduced all presenters to ioby, a grassroots crowdfunding platform, where many of them have set up pages to seek funding. (See all the Accelerate presenters and their ideas here.)

Teen Accelerate

The new Teen Accelerate: Students Make Change, in partnership with the Young Entrepreneur Institute and sponsored by Burton D. Morgan Foundation, attracted tremendous interest from Northeast Ohio students in grades 9-12. While teens have presented at Accelerate in past years and have won the competition, the addition of Teen Accelerate opened the stage to even more next-generation leaders who have the passion and ideas to make a positive impact, Crosley said. Twelve teams totaling 21 presenters pitched in the teen competition.

Ella Witalec of Laurel School won Teen Accelerate with a pitch for “CodHers Cle.” Her weekend-long hackathon would introduce coding to middle school girls with no prior experience. She received $1,000 and the support of a mentor to help launch the initiative.

Runner-up was Anshul Sharma of University School, who received $500 for the pitch for “Healing through Harmonies.” It would connect student musicians with seniors who are ill to improve their quality of life and remove ageist sentiments among students. All other Teen Accelerate presenters received $250 and follow up mentoring.

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 six businesses created by youth. In addition to selling their products, they shared their stories. For example, Jonathan Watkins, a 10th-grade student at Cleveland School of the Arts, said he learned to bake from his aunt. He started his bakery, “Fatts Treats,” after losing her to cancer to honor her legacy and gain business skills.

Stephanie Kent, 13 and a Cleveland Metropolitan School District student, is the second generation of her family to sell costume jewelry and hopes her kids one day may follow in her footsteps; she’s also planning to design her own jewelry.

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.

Accelerate 2023 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 Oatey Company and Westfield Insurance Foundation. The networking reception, during which guests could engage with current and past Accelerate presenters and make other connections, was sponsored by KJK. Another sponsor, Centric Consulting, supported brightly colored and engaging art installations created by Ingenuity Cleveland.

In weeks leading up to Accelerate, presenters received training in presentation skills from Andrea Peck of Andrea Peck Communications and Michael Obertacz, Executive Director of the Near West Theatre. In-kind support was provided by Zinner & Co.

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, 42% are women, 68% are people of color, 28% are 29 or younger, and 18% identify as LGBTQ+.

Accelerate has been a catalyst for ideas that impact everyone from pre-kindergarteners to senior citizens. Dozens of projects have become businesses, nonprofits, or initiatives of an organization in the months and years after being presented. A Past Presenters Showcase at Accelerate featured some of those who initiatives have been launched.  Updates on past pitches are at


Background and links to full descriptions of all pitches:
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,