Dolphin Tank: It’s like ‘Shark Tank’ but to make good, not endless profits

And the money was flowing Wednesday night.
6 min. read
Kenneth Cobbin speaks during CrossPurpose’s Change Agency pitch night. Apollo dutifully hangs out on stage. Sept. 18, 2019. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)

A nonprofit that started out fighting poverty by readying people for the workplace has expanded to helping graduates of its career training programs start their own workplaces.

Four CrossPurpose alums gathered at the faith-based organization's Skyland headquarters Wednesday to pitch business ideas at an event modeled on ABC's  "Shark Tank". Modeled on, but with differences.

Instead of real estate tycoons and tech entrepreneurs firing biting questions, CrossPurpose assembled a panel of "dolphins" to mentor, not judge the four budding entrepreneurs whose pitches emphasized doing good as well as doing business. The dolphins included a pastor as well as investment experts, company presidents and corporate lawyers from the Denver area.

"Dolphins are just warm and friendly and cuddly," CrossPurpose CEO Jason Janz said, describing the tone he wanted to set in a room decorated with flowers and balloons.

Whittier Cafe owner Millete Birhanemaskel acts as a "dolphin tank" judge during CrossPurpose's Change Agency pitch night, Sept. 18, 2019. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)

CrossPurpose invited members of the public to offer support, whether investing, donating or otherwise. Janz encouraged Denverites to "love the people who are in your city. Help them do good."

The audience and dolphins obliged. By evening's end, a total of more than $70,000 had been pledged to expand the business of a service dog trainer who had served time in prison; outfit a studio where a model who once battled low self-esteem will offer children confidence-raising glamor photo shoots; ensure a survivor of childhood sexual abuse gets the training she needs to mentor others who have experienced similar trauma; help a part-time artist and abuse survivor become a full-time creator of inspirational murals.

"Those who have been through the struggle are best suited to help those still in it," Janz said.

Kenneth Cobbin said expanding his Gifted Paws dog training and boarding business would allow him to hire others who have been imprisoned. He learned to train dogs during a 30-years stint in prison. When he got out in 2015 he discovered how difficult it can be for someone with a record to find employment.  CrossPurpose has focused on people exiting prison, those experiencing homeless, single parents and others deemed especially vulnerable.

Cobbin's goal was to "train more dogs and help more people. This is about helping people and their best friends -- dogs," Cobbin said.

Apollo rested patiently at his feet as Cobbin spoke. Cobbin said he was training Apollo to support a client who had been diagnosed with multiple sclerosis.

Cobbin had requested $20,000 to expand his training space, buy a van and supplies and increase marketing.

Members of the audience were asked to mark envelopes with the names of the pitchers they wanted to support and stuff them with checks, credit card forms and notes. At the end of the evening, Cobbin's tally was just under $30,000. One of the dolphins was Kathy Decker Frueh, a co-owner and president of KONG, which makes chew toys. She promised Cobbin a giant supply.

All the pitchers got more than they had asked. Tawanda Felicianna received $10,000 after requesting $8,000 -- $3,000 for equipment and supplies and $5,000 she said she would use for photo shoots for 72 girls in group homes, foster homes and hospitals.

Tawanda Felicianna speaks during CrossPurpose's Change Agency pitch night, Sept. 18, 2019. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)

Felicianna described growing up in group and foster homes and feeling worthless. She often ran away, she said.

"Not running anywhere. Running to disappear," she said. "I wanted to never be heard from again."

She overcame her lack of confidence and has been a model for the past five years. Felicianna said she would draw on her experience to reach out to girls and "show them that they are beautiful and that someone cares."

Sheila Littlejohn also was focused on caring. She described suffering sexual abuse from the age of 11 until she left home just before she turned 18. Littlejohn, an operations specialist at Clayton Early Learning, cited research that shows one in four girls and one in 20 boys face similar victimization. Many grow up to experience job insecurity and substance abuse, as Littlejohn did.

"Those statistics, they're horrifying," she said. "It needs to stop. It has to stop."

Littlejohn wants to start what she calls a ministry to support other adult victims of childhood sexual abuse. The $9,000 sh requested included $5,000 so she could offer free wellness classes to clients and $2,500 so she could take classes and earn a license in addiction counseling. She received pledges totalling $19,000.

Sheila Littlejohn speaks during CrossPurpose's Change Agency pitch night, Sept. 18, 2019. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)

Leticia Tanguma, a survivor of abuse and homelessness, wants to use art to heal. Her own work has received notice and she helped her father Leo Tanguma create murals for Denver's airport. But she has not been able to devote all her time to her art "that teaches love instead of hate."

"The first thing that I'm asking from you tonight is to let me do a mural," she said Wednesday night. "Hire me."

She also solicited $8,000 for a mural she wants to create decrying gun violence and asked for help finding a site.

Tanguma ended the night with five orders for murals -- she priced an eight-foot-square piece at $3,200 -- and more than $11,000 in pledges. Millete Birhanemaskel, a dolphin who owns Whittier Cafe, offered Tanguma a show at the cafe.

Cobbin, Felicianna, Littlejohn and Tanguma honed their proposals over the past six months in a CrossPurposes program called Change Agency. The incubator and accelerator program was piloted last year. This is the first year CrossPurpose sought funding for it with a pitch night.

Artist Leticia Tanguma speaks during CrossPurpose's Change Agency pitch night, Sept. 18, 2019. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)

The donates pledged last night will go to CrossPurpose, making them tax-deductible. The nonprofit will disburse each participant's share over the next year and help ensure the money is used for the purposes described in the pitches.

One other way in which the Cross Purpose dolphin tank differed from "Shark Tank": No eyebrows raised in skepticism. Instead, several dolphins choked up as the addressed the pitchers.

They weren't alone. At one point, a woman in the audience murmured:

"I'm glad I didn't wear makeup. My makeup would have been ruined."

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