Junior Sri Jaladi Wins $500 in Spark! Pitch Competition


Courtesy of Xanthe Meyer

Spark! mentor Xanthe Meyer, Bilal Danish, and competitors senior Emma Lee Francois, Parkway South senior Subah Shovik and winner junior Sri Jaladi pose for a photo after the Parkway Spark! Thomas Phelps Pitch Competition Feb. 6. Jaladi’s business, Nano Lending, aims to empower impoverished and homeless entrepreneurs by providing them with foundational products to help them start their own businesses. “It feels really good [running Nano Lending] because it’s not necessarily just for money,” Jaladi said. “I think it’s great to do something where this is not meant for profit and any money that’s repaid back just goes back into the program.”

By Paige Matthys-Pearce, Parkway West High School

In the midst of anticipation and excitement at the Spark! Incubator, with $500 on the line, stands junior Sri Jaladi as he is announced as the winner of the 2020 Thomas Phelps Business Pitch Competition Feb. 6.

Students from Parkway’s Spark! Incubator program pitched a business idea to a panel of judges in hopes of winning $500 to fund their project.

“I did Spark! last year as well so I did a couple of these pitches last year so I wasn’t too nervous, but I was really excited,” Jaladi said. “It felt great [when I won] because there’s a lot of other businesses that are very capable and have a lot of potential, but it’s very honoring that they selected mine.”

Jaladi pitched a social entrepreneurship project called Nano Lending, a non-profit business that gives microloans at no interest rate to homeless or impoverished people. The goal is to help them start their own businesses with the help of equipment or merchandise to gain a sustainable source of income.

Nano Lending customer Nathaniel and junior Sri Jaladi pose for a photo. Nano Lending helped Nathaniel start a lawn care and landscaping business through a workshop. (Courtesy of Nano Lending)

Spark! Incubator mentor Xanthe Meyer helped Jaladi start Nano Lending by providing opportunities for Jaladi to win capital from the pitch competition, setting up with professionals that could help, brainstorming, and more.

“[It feels] great [helping students get set up for future success]. It is my passion.  However, sometimes students get mad at me for pushing them out of their comfort zone and challenging them on an ongoing business. My statement is, ‘if you are not mad at me, you are not working hard enough,’” Meyer said.

In the span of a year and a half, 87 people have received loans through the Nano Lending program that total an amount of around $21,000, around 20% of which have already been paid in full. Much of the $21,000 is from donations of mentors at Spark! and Jaladi’s friends and family.

“Off the bat, my close family, relatives, friends and mentors at Spark! were not only willing to donate but give me advice as to how I can further develop [Nano Lending],” Jaladi said.

Damion, a member of the Covenant House Youth Shelter, and Jaladi pose for a photo. Damion received a loan to begin a website designing business after attending a Nano Lending workshop.

Jaladi was inspired to start Nano Lending after a conversation with a man in need.

“I met someone who was talking about how he was struggling to raise his two daughters and his elderly mother,” Jaladi said. “He was alone, he was single and he was working for another power washing business and he lost his job there. His statement was, ‘If only I had my own power washer.’ So that inspired me.”

For his first loan, Jaladi used money that he won from various math competitions to invest in a power washer for the man.

“He had the skill to be able to power wash and all he was lacking was his first power washer. The cost of a power washer was around $500. Every time he would go and actually power wash a house [he would earn] $200 or $250, so I saw how he can quickly repay me. That was the very first idea. [I realized] this is a very good way to help someone else,” Jaladi said.

Jaladi’s first customer now has various contracts with local businesses and restaurants to power wash their buildings. Running Nano Lending as a non-profit, Jaladi believes his business has benefits that traditional loan programs do not have.

“It feels really good [running Nano Lending] because it’s not necessarily just for money,” Jaladi said. “I think that a lot of the loans that are given out in small amounts like microloans, payday loans or even local loans that banks give out are at very high interest rates and they’re mainly meant for profit. I think it’s great to do something where this is not meant for profit and any money that’s repaid just goes back into the program.”

With the $500 won, Jaladi hopes to improve his website and expand his business via a blockchain system for donors and loan takers.

Robert, a member of CityHope, made about 80 cloth masks for other CityHope residents through help from COVID-19 Relief for the Unhoused.

“Currently, I don’t actually give anyone cash, so [customers’] loan[s] [don’t] have equipment or merchandise,” Jaladi said. “If I was able to set up an online system, I could directly give them money. [The blockchain system] creates a lot more efficiency in terms of being able to give out more loans because it takes up less of my time and it takes up less process first people actually get their loan itself.”

The blockchain system also lets Jaladi see where loan takers use the money. Currently, Jaladi is working to expand Nano Lending locally.

“Right now, I’m working on setting up in various shelters that I have visited in order to give loans. I’m trying to set up business incubators there so people who have already received a loan or would like to receive a loan can have a similar environment to the Spark! program, where they can have the resources to be able to develop their businesses further,” Jaladi said.

After social distancing mandates were announced in March, Jaladi started a new Nano Lending project called “COVID-19 Relief for the Unhoused,” a fundraising campaign that provides a sewist entrepreneur in shelters around St. Louis with a sewing machine, kit and fabric to make cloth masks to donate to shelter staff and residents, as well as to local hospitals.

“It was worrisome to me that social distancing is simply not feasible among the unhoused, be it in encampments or in shelters, both congregate and non-congregate, where cots are lined up in long halls or rooms,” Jaladi said.

100 masks were made and given to Covenant House through COVID-19 Relief for the Unhoused. (Courtesy of Sri Jaladi)

So far, COVID-19 Relief for the Unhoused has helped three shelters obtain five sewing machines to make cloth masks for their own residents and for people in other shelters and encampments. Shelter residents and community volunteers have collectively made and donated 1,300 cloth face masks for people in over 13 shelters and community organizations.

Jaladi would like to encourage those who want to start their own businesses.

“Just start’ is the best advice I can give, because a lot [of people] struggle,” Jaladi said. “[Students] at Spark! and people I have given loans to have a lot of trouble just starting their business. Not that they don’t want to start their business, but it can be difficult. It can seem overwhelming at first, but if you start and you take the first steps, you can really go forward.”

This story was originally published on Pathfinder on May 19, 2020.