Seven female and male executives from Iona and Viscardi standing in conference space, one male is seated in a wheelchair.

Left to right, Kemesha Salmon, owner of TP Toys and Pitchfest judge; Anne Marie Hynes, founder of the Hynes Institute for Entrepreneurship & Innovation; Hon. Ken Jenkins, Westchester Deputy County Executive; Dr. Chris Rosa, president and CEO of The Viscardi Center; Dr. Christoph Winkler, founding program director of the Hynes Institute; Tricia Mulligan, Ph.D., Iona University provost and senior vice president for Academic Affairs; and Steven Markowitz, The Viscardi Center Board Member and Pitchfest judge.

After flying in from Mobile, Alabama, Niles Valentine arrived at Iona University determined to prove he was prepared to take his business to the next level.

He had just spent the past six weeks working closely with mentors from Iona’s Hynes Institute for Entrepreneurship & Innovation, refining his business strategy and honing his presentation skills. Now was his time to shine. This was the moment he had been working toward.

Standing cool, calm and collected before a panel of judges – not to mention a packed room and global audience watching via Zoom – Valentine launched into his pitch.

“Valentine Services & Products makes handyman, construction and technical products and services affordable, accessible and reliable for the middle-class consumer,” he stated, clearly having mastered the art of the elevator pitch. “We are not just any handyman and technical company. We behave with the dignity, respect and fairness you expect of professionals.”

The judges took notes, nodded and after a series of questions, moved on to the next pitch. By the end of the day, 10 entrepreneurs had presented their budding business ideas.

The opportunity was all part of the inaugural IdeaSpark Pitchfest, hosted at the Hynes Institute on Iona’s New Rochelle campus on July 25, 2023. Fully accessible to participants from around the world, the Pitchfest served as the culminating event of a six-week program developed in partnership between Iona University and The Viscardi Center. View a short Pitchfest highlight video.

The judges clearly had a difficult choice to make. But winners had to be chosen.

  • Taking home first place and $4,000 was Kimberly Minto, whose Sitting Beauty Magazine covers fashion, beauty and lifestyle tips for women with disabilities.
  • Taking home second place and $2,500 was Daniela Izzie, who runs Access Social, a social media agency powered by people with disabilities and serving brands who are trying to reach the disabled audience.
  • Last but not least, taking home third place and $1,000 was none other than Niles Valentine, all the way from Alabama.

“I learned something from every single experience; I learned something every single day that I was there,” Niles said of his time in the program. “The people were great. It was good to find out that there were people who were like-minded, like I was, who accepted my entrepreneurial spirit. Because it’s seeing a problem and thinking, wow! Instead of saying it’s someone else’s problem, it’s saying, how can I solve this problem?”

Iona psychology major Jordan Providence ’24 had mentored Valentine throughout the program. He described the experience as not only being eye-opening, but also tremendously rewarding.

“I really had a lot of fun,” Providence said. “I feel like they all offered such different things and it was fun to be able to immerse myself in each of their ideas and help them out.”

At Iona, students are encouraged to “Learn Outside the Lines” and apply their classroom lessons in service to others. The partnership between The Viscardi Center and the Hynes Institute presented the perfect opportunity to do just that – and not coincidentally, the Pitchfest took place on the eve of the 33rd anniversary of the passing of the Americans with Disabilities Act.

“I think it’s particularly fitting that we are all here together on this occasion,” said Dr. Chris Rosa, president and CEO of The Viscardi Center, as he kicked off the program. “All of us know that the ADA is one of the most far-reaching pieces of legislation ever enacted in this country, and each and every day we are working together toward the promise of equal access, opportunity and inclusion that is guaranteed by the ADA.”

“What we’re hoping is that IdeaSpark allows individuals with disabilities to build a truly inclusive economy that works for all Americans,” Rosa continued. “And the way we hope to do that is by cultivating the next big ideas – the ones that spark inclusion and the true and full participation of more than 61 million Americans with disabilities in the economy both as empowered consumers and as entrepreneurs.”

Ken Jenkins, Westchester Deputy County Executive and an Iona alumnus, joined in the celebration by offering congratulations and well wishes during the opening remarks. He applauded Iona University, The Viscardi Center and all of the participants, emphasizing that an entrepreneurial mindset is beneficial in so many aspects of work and life.

“This kind of work – and having a Pitchfest at the end of this pilot program – is such an exciting opportunity for us in Westchester County,” Jenkins said, adding that the county just recently hosted a Diverse Abilities Job Fair at the Westchester County Center. “What you take away from this program are skills you can use throughout your career, no matter what you decide to do. That entrepreneurial spirit, knowing how to be the change, how to make that pitch – it’s something that is so incredibly important.”

Tricia Mulligan, Ph.D., Iona’s provost and senior vice president for Academic Affairs, said both The Viscardi Center and Iona University are committed and focused every day on creating a more accessible, inclusive and equitable world for people with disabilities. Programs like IdeaSpark, she added, are a critical step in advancing this mission.

“This program is quite simply amazing,” Mulligan said. “The people that are presenting today have varied passions, they have varied abilities, they have varied challenges – but none of those challenges have stopped them. They are inspiring to all of us to take what you know and to build upon it and to not give up along the way.”