Mohamed Awil, left, Azinaida Pedro, center, and Abel Paquete Dias of Community Staffing Partners in Lewiston. Submitted photo

LEWISTON — A Lewiston staffing agency that would specialize in matching immigrants with open jobs and a Topsham entrepreneur whose website would introduce foodies to the local food and beverage scene wherever they travel in Maine are moving on to the Top Gun statewide finals.

They’ll face six other regional finalists all pitching-off on May 26 for the $25,000 grand prize from Maine Technology Institute.

“I would like to point out LA had the Top Gun winner for the state last year, so we’re pretty excited about the entrepreneurial supports and pathways in the region,” Shanna Cox, president of the Lewiston Auburn Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce, said Thursday as the fifth annual Top Gun LA pitch-off got underway.

Mohamed Awil, co-founder of Community Staffing Partners with Azenaide Pedro and Abel Dias, said its mission is to build a diverse, inclusive workforce in Maine.

“Each of us have faced some bias along the employment process in the past and we hope to make sure that others don’t go through that same experience,” Awil said. “We’re passionate about serving our community.”

When many staffing agencies make placements now, “they lack the cultural awareness of the barriers faced by the new Mainer job seekers,” he said. And often, their involvement ends at hiring.


Community Staffing Partners would continue that relationship with the employer, offering services like recruitment and retention help, cultural competency training and interpretation, Awil said, using a subscription-based model.

The goal would be to place 4,570 temporary and permanent workers in the next five years.

Prize money would help them scale up, buy software and “hire culturally competent job coaches,” he said.

Judge Chris Rugullies, commercial market manager and senior vice president Camden National Bank, congratulated the group on a recent Maine Center for Entrepreneurs diversity scholarship and said he really liked its mission.

“I’ve just seen that as this community grows, there’s such a need for this,” added judge Lori Allen, a business adviser for the Maine Small Business Development Center at the Androscoggin Valley Council of Governments.

Steve Veazey, the third judge and SCORE MAINE district director, asked about scalability.


Awil said they anticipated growing first in Maine, then across the U.S.

“When you were asking if anyone was experiencing hiring problems, I did a quick scan of the room — it’s the biggest concern that we hear from our members these days,” Cox said.

Jennifer Banis of Stay FnB. Submitted photo

The second Top Gun LA pitch-off winner of the morning, Jennifer Banis, said she’d been a chef in the Maine food industry for over 20 years and had owned the boutique catering company 111 Maine for 16.

Her new company, Stay FnB, would connect people to local farms, breweries and bakeries, as well as a list of markets and restaurants that deliver to wherever they’re staying.

“We understand that the world is filled with foodies, people who are educated on food, health, sustainability,” Banis said. “Foodies know how food makes them feel and they know that their memorable experiences are connected to good food. . . Imagine going to one website, typing in your location and being able to drink in the local scene.”

The site, which would rely on a flat fee structure for listings, is 70% complete and due to launch this summer, she said.


Prize funds would help her build a vendor network and social media presence.

“We can have one, consolidated, curated place where people could begin to go to find those conscious companies offering that service,” said Banis.

Also pitching Thursday were Maria D’Auria of Second Gen Jerky, Jamey Cotnoir of A Mindful Eye, Tara Kieger of Sweet Cakes Bake Shop, Joan Drappeau of Slicpix and Norman Patry of Summer Feet Cycling.

The Top Gun 2021 Showcase kicks off virtually May 26 at 5:30 p.m. The effort, designed to spur entrepreneurship and job growth in the state, is a project of the Maine Center for Entrepreneurs.

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