OCOA Beauty, a Reading-based company that makes curly hair products, has won first place at the annual tecBRIDGE Business Plan Competition in Wilkes-Barre.
The company, owned by sisters Cory Varona-Corniel and Nicol Varona-Cancelmo, won the $10,000 prize at the competition, as well as in-kind services valued at $100,000 including billboards and consulting services.
OCOA is a client of Alvernia University’s O’Pake Institute SPARK Business Incubator, and was one of three finalists the institute had at the April competition. The other non-collegiate finalist was Dr. Kryn McClain, owner of CatapalloVR, and the collegiate finalist was Logan Minford, an Alvernia student entrepreneur and owner of Wooden Chair Coffee Co.
“This win and having three finalists at the tecBRIDGE Business Plan Competition is a testament to Alvernia and O’Pake’s mission to drive economic development and entrepreneurship while facilitating student experiential learning opportunities,” Dr. Rodney S. Ridley Sr., Alvernia vice president of research economic development & innovation and chief operating officer of the O’Pake Institute, said in a statement. “Entrepreneurs and students get to learn alongside each other while making critical strides in their journey and I am grateful to be able to see that transformation unfold.”
This is the second year the business incubator has had finalists in the tecBridge Business Plan competition. OCOA Beauty is the business incubator’s first winner.
Early-stage entrepreneurs compete in the non-collegiate division, and student teams from the region’s colleges and universities compete in the collegiate division of tecBRIDGE. Competitors provide deliverables in four areas — executive summary, competitor analysis, pro forma financials and a pitch deck — which they presented April 13. Industry expert judges evaluated the presentations ahead of the awards ceremony, which was held April 27.
“It feels really amazing to be the winner of the tecBRIDGE Business Plan Competition,” Varona-Corniel said in a statement. “Seeing all of the hard work paying off, the hours of practice, mentorship, and having so many people encourage us to get to the finish line is an amazing feeling for us.”
Getting to the finals
The team at the O’Pake Institute SPARK Business Incubator identified clients it thought would be good candidates for the competition, then encouraged them to apply, according to Sarah Heckman, graduate assistant of client services for the O’Pake Institute. Once all the applications were in, the tecBRIDGE organization selected five non-collegiate and five collegiate finalists to pitch at the competition.
Varona-Cancelmo said the pair from OCOA worked closely with their mentor, Michelle Conway, director of student and client services at Alvernia’s O’Pake Institute, who has also worked with OCOA with various grant efforts.
“When we received the news that we were finalists, we practiced and practiced our pitch. We are dedicated at least two hours a day to perfect the pitch,” the pair said in an emailed response to questions.
The team from OCOA was one of the only companies to do the pitch presentation without notes on the computer, which they said made an impression on the judges.
“We loved the experience and truly enjoyed sharing more about our business. It is one of our favorite things to do,” they said.
“I am overjoyed to see that the countless hours that Cory and Nicol spent crafting their business plan with the O’Pake team and practicing their pitch pay off,” Conway said.
growing the company
OCOA Beauty, which was formerly DN Organics, won FLIC (Financial Lending and Innovation Collaborative) funding from the O’Pake Institute in November 2022 and has been a client of the incubator since. The $5,000 FLIC microgrant was for branding and marketing services and website development to help expand the company’s reach.
Varona-Corneil and Varona-Cancelmo said the SPARK network, mentors and the connections to other founders have been incredible, opening opportunities for them to continue to grow their business.
The team said they rebranded the company from DN Naturals to OCOA Beauty about nine months after starting the business.
“As we navigated the beauty industry, we started to learn that in order for us to grow and meet our goals, we needed to invest heavily in our brand,” they said, adding the rebranding process took about 15 months.
They worked with brand strategist, Julie Kucinski, the founder and CEO of pitchwell, to focus on the brand message. The 15-month rebranding process, they say, is the best investment they have made in the business.
OCOA’s founders said they plan to use a portion of the tecBRIDGE competition prize money for third-party testing for a new product they are developing. The remainder, they said, will help with digital marketing efforts.
Varona-Corneil and Varona-Cancelmo said they have big plans through 2024. They are among 25 founders nationwide to be selected for the inaugural Square Forward accelerator program. They also have new products and partnerships planned and will be partnering with local organizations to provide educational workshops for youth, as well as donating to non-profit organizations.
“We are very excited about the future, and we can’t wait to share more of what’s coming soon,” they said.
The O’Pake Institute SPARK Business Incubator provides a support system for entrepreneurs that includes mentors, staff, and students and offering services such as business planning, branding, website development, technology transfer, and digital and traditional marketing assistance.
The O’Pake Institute has serviced nearly 250 local and regional small and established businesses in Berks County and beyond since its rebranding in June 2020.