McKenna Haase presents her business, Compass Racing Development, at the inaugural Flourish event in 2018. Photo courtesy of Janet Eckles.

Around the same time that Emily Steele left her job working for a community development nonprofit to get FemCity Des Moines off the ground, the state of Iowa found itself at the bottom of the list of women-owned businesses.

In fact, in 2015, Iowa was ranked dead last for “economic clout” – a metric that examines combined growth rates of women-owned businesses and growth in employment and revenue – according to an American Express report.

Steele wanted to change that. She saw how important small, local businesses were to a community and wanted to be a champion for women in business.

She stumbled across a community micro-granting event in Detroit called Soup. For $5, attendees would receive a soup dinner and an opportunity to vote on one of four presentations by community members looking to receive grants for projects in areas of art, urban agriculture, social entrepreneurship and justice. At the end of the night, the winner would go home with all of the money raised from ticket sales to help carry out the project.

Steele knew she wanted to replicate it in Des Moines, only this time with a focus on for-profit, women-owned businesses. More specifically, she wanted women to feel that “they have a space to be heard and express their dreams and not feel silly for it.”

“Seeing what happens when women have confidence, money, support and community is so magical,” Steele said.

The first Flourish event was held in 2018 at the Hall in West Des Moines. About 150 people showed up to watch three women – Cristina Rodriguez Zes, McKenna Haase and Tallis Strub – pitch their business ideas. Haase, a professional race car driver, won $2,000 to develop her business, Compass Racing Development.

In 2019, the Flourish finalists were Monika Owczarski, Shawnna Stiver and Jenny Quiner. Nearly 100 people raised $1,500 to help Owczarski buy equipment for her business, Sweet Tooth Farm.

Steele left FemCity Des Moines in early 2020, but continues to organize the Flourish event through her consulting firm, Love Local.

After taking a year hiatus due to the pandemic, Flourish will be held at Jasper Winery in Des Moines on Sept. 21 at 6 p.m. Tickets are on sale for $20.

Applications to pitch a business idea are open until Aug. 15. Finalists will be selected by an external review committee later in the month.

Steele hopes that the winner of this year’s event, which is sponsored by Love Local and the Greater Des Moines Partnership, will be able to walk away with $2,000 to $3,000.

“I love the idea that our community can fund ideas that matter. You don’t have to write a big check or be an angel investor; we can all invest $20 and show up for a night and know that that’s meaningfully impacting the present and the future of a specific business,” Steele said.