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SIOUX CITY — Sara Gotch went “Swimming with the Sharks” at last year’s Entrepalooza, the region’s annual celebration of independent businesses, and it’s done wonders for her brand since.

The Dakota Dunes-based entrepreneur pitched her business, Gnarly Pepper, at last year’s Swimming with the Sharks, a local contest for entrepreneurs. She won $1,950 after “the sharks” aka successful Siouxland business leaders awarded her startup the first place award.

Gnarly Pepper makes spice blends that are mixed with plain Greek yogurt to create healthier versions of popular dips and condiments. Flavors include Like Mayonaise, Onion Dip and Veggie Dip.

Gotch used a portion of the prize money to trademark her company’s name, something she said made her feel more established.

“With Entrepalooza, the money given kind of secured my business,” Gotch said.  “It kind of gave me the back burner and the backbone to say, ‘Hey, I’m real, I mean business and I'm coming for your stores.’” said Gotch, whose Gnarly Products blends can be found online, dozens of Siouxland retailers and a handful of stores in New Hampshire.

Gotch and other contestants also received free business advice from the sharks.

Last year’s judging panel included Dave Bernstein of State Steel and Dave Gleiser of the Woodbury County Rural Economic Development Office.

Gotch, a former graphic designer, created a unique business plan that emphasized visuals and that impressed one of her sharks so much he requested a copy of it to use as an example for others.

Gotch also won last year’s Innovation Market competition, an event similar to Swimming with the Sharks sponsored by the Sioux City Growth Organization, the region’s largest collective of young professionals.

She took the $5,000 prize and reinvested in the business. Gotch paid for booths at community events such as the Mercy Women's Night Out Gala in order to directly showcase her product to potential customers.

"I was able to make some sales and get out in the public as well," she said. "So that funding kind of stayed more community-based but it was able to help me expand on a larger scale."

Success stories from past participants such as Gotch are one of the things Judy Thompson loves most about helping organize Entrepalooza. The 2018 edition takes place from Feb. 12-22.

Thompson, a business professor at Briar Cliff University, oversees the school’s Entrepreneurial Action in Us or Enactus team, one of the primary sponsors of Entrepalooza.

“If you look at the research on economic development, entrepreneurship is a real driver of producing jobs,” Thompson said.

One of the primary purposes of the event is to promote the entrepreneurial spirit in Siouxland and Swimming with the Sharks and Innovation Market are two of the ways that it does that over 10 days.

Each competition is still seeking applicants — the deadline for Swimming with the Sharks is Feb. 7 and Feb. 12 for Innovation Market — and both events are open to businesses or individuals who reside in Siouxland.

There will also be Google Workshops, roundtable discussions, social events and the return of Love a Local, a hyper-local version of Small Business Saturday.

Rather than sit in the hot seat again, this year Gotch will participate in a Swimming with the Sharks panel with other past winners and give a presentation on entrepreneurialism during Innovation Market.

The message she wants to tell fellow up-and-coming entrepreneurs is you don't have to have a traditional business background to be successful and that its OK to do things outside the box.

"My advantage of not really having a business background is I'm willing to take risks because I either don't know better — one way or the other — or I take it to my advantage because I'm allowing people that are stagnant in that business world to see a new light on a different way of doing things," she said.   

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