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The Fashion Scholarship Fund held its first virtual accelerator grant competition in light of the coronavirus, with the $50,000 grant winner revealed by model Coco Rocha on Thursday via Instagram.

After presenting to judges and board members earlier that day, Sarah Butler was chosen as the grant winner for her “innovative hair color business.”

Previously a creative and brand director for Jetblack, Butler is a brand, design and strategy consultant and Savannah College of Art and Design alumni. The grant money will ensure that the business grows, with mentorship crucial along the way.

Formatted similarly to “Shark Tank,” the competition saw more than 60 applicants this year, with many focusing on sustainability as a business case in their five-minute pitch sessions held on Zoom.

The judges included Martin Cooper, former chief creative officer, Belstaff and vice president of design, Burberry and creative director, Lands’ End; Julia Haart, group chief executive officer, Elite World; Rocha, and April Uchitel, ceo of Violet Grey.

One designer championing the appeal of upcycling was Marrisa Wilson, the New Jersey-based designer behind her contemporary brand MWNY and latest denim line “Re-up jeans,” which celebrates “powerful, multicultural women” and pushes for waste reduction in the industry.

Interesting critiques came from Cooper, who challenged the notion of scale during an earlier pitch day. “Perhaps ‘scaling’ is a word and concept of the past,” said Cooper.

“If you start this from sustainability, everything you do will be scrutinized,” added Rocha.

Runner-up last year and recent graduate of UC Berkeley, Los Angeles-based Tim Tembrink presented for his brand Foundationals, touting “low-impact clothing for high-impact women.”

Kenny McCullough, founder of Odd Is North, a gender-neutral concept collection of luxury essentials, and FIT alum Andrea Spiridonakos of Spiridonakou, coats and accessories created from handcrafted fabrics, also presented notable ideas in their pitches.

The grant competition has offered access to guidance and capital to current and former FSF scholars. And considering the underrepresentation of people of color in the fashion industry’s upper managerial roles, visible in the slice of industry represented on FSF’s board, the fund’s executive director Peter Arnold was quick to acknowledge the role of FSF to foster change.

“You know my position on this — it’s not solely about hiring if the talent pool isn’t inclusive. Candidates of color aren’t in the talent pool. That’s why, what we do and what others are trying to do is so important. We have to get into the funnel, talent of color — underrepresented talent,” Arnold emphasized.

Last year, 24 percent of FSF scholarship winners were students of color.

Arnold reiterated: “That’s the way forward. We can talk all we want about hiring, but if you don’t have candidates of color you’re not going to be affecting change.”

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