As Mario Rueda hustled to get funding for the company he co-founded, he began to feel like an outsider in the entrepreneur space. The platform, Book a Street Artist, connects a network of 500 artists to people putting on corporate parties, weddings, and the like. But in startup competitions, Rueda says, it’s hard to get an artist-focused app recognized among the fin-tech and med-tech.

“As a young entrepreneur, you try to fit into the boxes that are out there,” he says. A business school graduate who left his job in the corporate world to pursue work that aligned with his values, Rueda (pictured, above) wants to take Book a Street Artist to the next level. While his business model wasn’t scalable for millions, he sees the immediate impact on the lives of the artists he features in the booking app.

Many entrepreneurs fall into this unique space in startupland: making an impact, but not in the way that entices investors. Or, they are ready for investment but don’t want to cede control of their project. Never fear, weirdos of the workplace, there are plenty of ways to find money for your nonconformist projects.

  1. Enter competitions that cater to originals

When Rueda applies to tech startup competitions, he knows his chances are slim when he struggles to fill in questions about customer acquisition cost and other metrics that don’t fit his business model. A new breed of competitions is emerging, though—one that favors societal impact.

Book a Street Artist made it to the finalist level at the Berlin Creator Awards, a competition that includes for-profits and nonprofits alongside artists. This global competition, sponsored by WeWork, is in its first year.

“The Creator Awards are about trying to uncover people who don’t fit into the traditional systems of funding,” says WeWork Co-founder Miguel McKelvey.

Red Bull Launchpad can help startups

Red Bull Launchpad also doesn’t shy away from socially-minded entrepreneurs. Park & Diamond, which manufactures foldable bike helmets, took home top honors at the Launchpad event in May 2017 when they were still in the prototype phase. As a result, the company was then able to showcase the collapsible helmet to a much larger audience at the TechCrunch Disrupt conference in New York.

While new awards pop up to fill a need, others are starting to embrace winners with social impact. GoSafely’s Annemarie Stockinger, who designed an alert device to help anyone walking alone feel safer, started to enter tech competitions such as HackATL, but kept her expectations low.

“Hackathons lean not toward social impact but to the coolest newest thing,” Stockinger says. “So I was shocked when they called us for the final round.”

The college-aged crew of GoSafely ultimately won first place in 2016, and applications for HackATL 2017 include a social impact category.

  1. Crowdfund your project

Besides competitions, Stockinger is also taking advantage of crowdfunding opportunities to raise capital without being tied to investors. “While I am interested in having a company that can stay afloat, I want to help people,” she says. “I’m concerned that any outside funding might not align with that goal.”

With several platforms to choose from, Stockinger suggests studying how similar projects or competitors fared on each site. “Looking at the data, social impact projects do better on Indiegogo,” Stockinger says. “Also their video hosting is on YouTube, so it’s searchable and can drive traffic to our campaign.”

Working outside the US? Startups in China have found great success on 36kr, and Kueski serves Latin America with a micro-lending service.

  1. Ask the crowd to invest

Let’s say you wouldn’t mind getting investors involved, but for whatever reason you can’t tap into traditional investment routes. A newer alternative (as of January 2016) is to crowdfund an investment round. Platforms such as WeFund, SeedInvest, and StartEngine connect anyone willing to invest with exciting new companies. The people drawn to the campaigns are often the same people who would buy the product, making crowdfunded investors an important resource for customer insights, too.

“The people who invest care,” says StartEngine Co-founder Howard Marks. This month, StartEngine kicked off its first round of funding using its own platform. “(Our investors) want to understand why we’re doing this, what our past is and what our future is. There’s as much trying to make money, but also an emotional investment.”

  1. Try government funding

If you have a project that’s in line with what your government wants to fund, these grants often come without the strings investors would want. Muhammad Mujeeb-U-Rahman heads up Integrated Medical Sensors, which is developing a medical device that would shake up how diabetes patients track their glucose. Instead of patients pricking themselves, they could just check an app receiving levels from a tiny sensor implanted in the finger.

He said that big companies wouldn’t take the risk of developing a whole new product and venture capitalists would want all the control, potentially raising the product cost beyond Rahman’s vision to help anyone in need.

“The government doesn’t ask for any control of pricing,” Rahman says. “I have huge respect for those programs. They support young people and ideas.”

His company found success through the National Institutes of Health, the National Science Foundation, and the Small Business Innovation Research Fund.

  1. Stay weird

And, at the end of the day, just embracing the fact you’re a misfit company may be what you need.

“At some point, we realized, fuck it, we’re just going to do our thing and tell our story,” says Rueda of Book a Street Artist. “And we as an art-tech company managed to convince investors to invest in us.”

Berlin-based Book a Street Artist
The muralists “Innerfields” work on a project secured through Book a Street Artist

“Ten years ago most people here did not know what this brown paste was,” says Anthony Brahimsha of the chickpea dip that is now nearly ubiquitous on menus in the U.S..

Born to Syrian parents, Brahimsha knew that hummus in the Middle East is much better than that found in American grocery stores. With the help of Mike McCloskey, owner of Select Milk Producers, the sixth largest dairy cooperative in the country, he developed a hummus called Prommus that is higher in protein –– three times that of other dips. It preserves the traditional flavor by using cold pressure, rather than heat, in the kitchen.

“What Halo Top is to ice cream and Chobani is to yogurt, we are to hummus,” Brahimsha says, by way of explaining that Prommus is also changing the industry.

The company name is a combination of the words “protein” and “hummus,” but is also a play on the word “promise.” With 1 percent of sales benefitting the World Food Program to fight global hunger, Brahimsha hopes that the product can have a significant effect on ending hunger and making nutritious foods available wherever they are needed.

Prommus cofounder Anthony Brahimsha, who has spent a lot of time on humanitarian missions, believes his hummus could help feed the world.

While the initial idea was born out of his humanitarian work in refugee camps along the Turkish/Syrian border, Brahimsha has even bigger dreams. The world needs to find more ways to make nutritious foods for people who are going hungry, and he thinks Prommus and its innovative production process are part of the solution. Two patents are currently pending.

The company’s four varieties (original, red pepper, olive, and avocado) are sold in the Midwest, primarily in Illinois and Michigan. These flavors were taste-tested by Brahimsha’s fellow members at Chicago’s WeWork River North, a community that he says has been invaluable to the startup.

“There are a lot of co-working spaces, but not everywhere is a community of social entrepreneurs who are rooting for their peers,” he says.

A winner in the business venture category at the Nashville Creator Awards, he says he’ll be able to start the next stage of expansion for his company, primarily by adding staff.

“As soon as you win this award, all the blood sweat and tears that you put into the company comes together,” he says. “Everything that you have been doing, the people that were with you along the way, finally, it feels like an affirmation that you were doing the right thing.”


Melanie Faye grew up in Nashville, but she doesn’t credit Music City with her success. She credits Guitar Hero. Yes, that Guitar Hero, the video game that allows players to mimic the sounds and moves of their favorite stars. For Faye, it was Michael Jackson.

“I don’t think growing up in Nashville introduced me to guitar players,” Faye says. “My parents were chemists. I was not able to go to bars and see local shows. Guitar Hero introduced me to all this music I was not exposed to. Guitar Hero looked really cool. It made me feel empowered.”

So, perhaps it shouldn’t be a surprise that Faye, now 20, has found fame via YouTube. After dropping out of college three semesters in to pursue her music career, Faye posted videos of herself sitting in her bedroom and playing covers of John Mayer and Mariah Carey.

“Guitar Hero introduced me to all this music I was not exposed to,” says Melanie Faye. “Guitar Hero looked really cool. It made me feel empowered.”

She also used the platform to debut some of her original work, which she describes as a mixture of R&B, hip hop, and pop. Her voice, serious guitar-playing chops, and friendly demeanor propelled those videos to more than 10 million views. She was so popular that the guitar company Fender tapped her to demo a new line of the instrument.

“I thought, ‘This is it! I’m viral. I made it!’ But it does not work that way,” she says. Faye makes ends meet by working at a local doughnut shop and teaches guitar. She also keeps working on her music the old-fashioned way, having been tapped to be the opening act for musicians like Noname and Mac Demarco. Her most recent gig was at the Nashville Creator Awards.

She is working on her first album, which she hopes will be out by the year’s end. A self-proclaimed perfectionist, Faye has been working on Homophone for years.

“If I had known it was going to take this long,” she says, “I wouldn’t have told people it was going to be out soon.”

Faye is also working to relieve the jitters that come with performing live, rather than in front of a camera. A recent show at the Hollywood Palladium was a game changer.

“I typically am really shy and inhibited on stage. But I felt so much support and positive energy, I just let loose,” she remembers. “I think to an extent you just have to have fake confidence at first. I walked up and had a confident demeanor and once I heard crowd cheering, then I was confident.”

“It happens overnight,” Maria Vertkin says. “An immigrant moves to the U.S. and goes from being a surgeon to washing toilets.”

College degrees and professional experience from their home country don’t always mean as much as they should when an immigrant starts a new life abroad, says Vertkin. She knows from experience: She spent her childhood in Russia and Israel before immigrating to the United States. But she realized that they have one thing that will always be of use to them: their language skills.

“It doesn’t make sense if you have something as valuable as a second language to not use it,” says Vertkin, who speaks English, Russian, Hebrew, Spanish, and Portuguese.

Vertkin, a Boston-based social worker, wanted to help train women to use their multilingual skills to their advantage. She saw a need that they could fill in the medical field. Hospitals in Massachusetts struggled to find interpreters for their patients who aren’t native English speakers. Without interpreters, expensive and even potentially fatal medical errors are possible.

A Found in Translation graduate shows off her diploma.

“The jobs are plentiful and the demographics are shifting,” says Vertkin. “Not only do they serve the local population, but medical tourists come from other countries and they need interpreters.”

The idea was a hit with the judges of WeWork’s Nashville Creator Awards. Found in Translation took home a $72,000 prize in the nonprofit category.

In 2011, Vertkin started Found in Translation to help homeless and low-income women achieve economic security by making their language skills an asset, rather than a liability. Within a few weeks of announcing the first class, she had 200 applications.

The nonprofit offers medical interpreter certificate training as well as other interpreter programs. And the training includes more than the core curriculum — childcare, transportation, job placement, and access to mentors for professional development are also part of the program.

The 186 graduates of Found in Translation classes between 2012 and 2017 earned approximately $1.86 million cumulatively more per year than they did before enrollment. That’s about $10,000 more per person annually. She says that if she wins in the nonprofit category at the Nashville Creator Awards, she can expand the program.

Classes currently take place in Boston, where Vertkin estimates they could easily double in size with the right funding. Every city in the U.S., she says, has the potential for success with Found in Translation.

“There is opportunity and need and we are connecting them,” Vertkin says. “The biggest risk is for employers not hiring multilingual employees.”

If Janett Liriano has her way, you won’t be using your FitBit much longer.

Liriano is CEO of Loomia, a New York-based firm at the intersection of tech and fashion. The company creates “intelligent drapeable circuits” that are soft enough to be embedded into textiles and can be safely washed and dried. Instead of wearing a step tracker on your wrist, it could be embedded into your running shoes.

That’s just the beginning of what these circuits can do. Those shoes might not just track your steps, but can also measure the pressure on your feet, giving you information on how you should adjust your gait. They might heat up and keep your feet warm in winter. And a light might keep you safer on a nighttime jog.

Loomia’s CEO Janett Liriano and founder Maddy Maxey

Liriano has two patents for her product and others in the pipeline for the smart fabric-enabling circuits. Her team is working with more than 80 brands on how they can integrate the smart technology into their designs. The current emphasis is on clothing, but the flexibility of the circuit opens the door to other products in the future.

“We are category agnostic,” Liriano says. “If you can make a washable circuit, you can put it on the floor. You can put it in wallpaper.”

Liriano, who took home third place in the business ventures category at the Nashville Creator Awards, sees potential in fields ranging from medicine to transportation.

Not only can Loomia transform the ways smart devices are used, it can also change what happens to all that data once it is collected. The company is looking at ways that consumers can sell their data to interested parties — or choose not to share it.

Liriano, a “born-and-bred New Yorker,” thinks the city is the right place for the firm. It’s one of the country’s great fashion hubs, but it also has a strong startup scene.

New Yorkers are inherently scrappy and resourceful,” she says. “For a business that is not super capitalized, that’s a good network. We are hard-core hustlers.”