Chicago youth present ideas for advancing and protecting the black community
Lisa Beasley, with the Nova Collective corporate learning and communication firm, was calming a team before their pitch.
"It's very scary to talk in front of people. If you start to get nervous and your heart starts beating fast, that's perfectly normal. That's human," she said. "I've been performing for 10 years and my heart still beats fast."
Elijah Jeffries held on to girlfriend Shaniya Washington's purse and phone, and insisted that she have a few nibbles as she concentrated on her pitch ahead of taking the stage.
"I've seen her work so hard," said Jeffries, himself a 17-year-old apparel entrepreneur. "I just told her to have confidence."
The Gray Matter Experience, a 12-week entrepreneurship program for black high school students, provides resources for young people to start their own businesses and positively impact South and West Side neighborhoods.
Britney Robbins had worked in corporate and moved to a startup before joining a nonprofit that taught students about entrepreneurship; however, she noticed that the organization failed to provide resources to help the students actually launch businesses. In founding The Gray Matter Experience in 2016, she wanted to include a funding element, and to put students in front of black entrepreneurs and business leaders.
"Our goal is to change the face of black and brown entrepreneurship, to make tech and entrepreneurship ecosystem more inclusive and to really give our black kids space to be creative and bring solutions to their communities," Robbins said.
She said that this year, many of the students came to The Gray Matter Experience year with ideas they'd already formulated and just wanted some direction. "They came in with ideas on how to better their communities and they really wanted to bring them to life," she said. "They came in dedicated to bringing solutions. They were very committed to figuring out a way to make it viable."
All teams participating in The Gray Matter Experience get financial stipends for scholarships, internships or seed funding — this year, that covered at least $1,000 per student, along with free branding, marketing and legal services.
The top three companies from the pitch competition will also receive free coworking space at mHub, a tech center for manufacturing.
So while making a profit is important, making a difference also is top of mind. Several participants aimed to keep youth safe and productive, mitigating the violence in some communities. Recruiteen, for example, is an app that uses GPS positioning to address high teen unemployment rates by connecting them with businesses for part-time jobs.
Supported by his mother and younger brother in the audience, both donning logoed t-shirts to match his company's, Jordan Lewis pitched Kids Going Out (KGO) a teen-run event company that provides a safe space for teens to convene. Lewis wasn't even seeking funding but placed second in the pitch competition, won a $1,000 prize and walked away with $20,000 in pledged investments from attendees — Kids Going Out has been running for about a year and said it draws hundreds of attendees per event, which are held in violence-free settings and employ heavy security to ensure the safety of attendees.
This year's 17-student Gray Matter cohort formed six teams, which included Chicago Based, a platform whereby teen entrepreneurs who specialize in beauty and cosmetics, entertainment, arts and food would pay a monthly $9.99 subscription to be profiled on the site, and customers could book services, schedule appointments and buy products through the app.
"It allows teens to put their focus into making money. The main stem of a lot of crime is not having enough resources or feeling like they can't get it, so they'd rather just take it," said Ezekiel Stevens, part of the Chicago Based team that came in third at the competition. "Chicago Based allows you to focus on what you're good at, whether it's customizing shoes or making beats. It allows you to make money and be happy.'
Shaniya Washington, Maya Cooks and Jaleea Henderson touted the idea for the Your Purpose app to link underserved students who need mental health counseling to volunteer counselors. Lameka Hayes and Jakaija Truitt teamed up for Chi-Chic, a custom shop for special occasion dressing that would provide formal wear to underserved students and determine payment based on household income.
Jordan Quinn, a Lindblom Math and Science Academy senior who has a passion for supporting black-owned businesses, envisioned Absolute Black, an online directory and app that connects such enterprises to customers and to each other; he and his team sought $80,000 to launch the business. He came to his idea after watching a documentary about the Greenwood black business district in Tulsa that was destroyed in a race riot — he vowed to support as many black-owned businesses as possible but found only a couple dozen that were mostly restaurants.
He said his Gray Matter Experience put him closer to development and presented him with black business role models. "This allows me to facilitate this dream, as well as help my own community," Quinn said. "It was a no-brainer for me."
In the end, the Food for Thought Aquaponics squad of DeJashana Boyd, McKayla Carruthers and Dartonya Wright took first prize for their idea for a hydroponics (combining fish and plants in a single garden system to feed off of each other) gardening education business.
The project addresses the food deserts in the communities from which all three hail, said Carruthers, who is from West Pullman and attends Gwendolyn Brooks College Prep with Englewood resident Wright; Boyd lives in East Garfield Park and attends Whitney M. Young High School.
"There are 22 food desserts in Chicago, 15 of them in African-American communities," Carruthers said, noting the absence of fresh food choices and a link to conditions such as obesity and diabetes and recalling being a 12-year-old who had to frequently rely on a bag of hot chips from the corner store or gas station for breakfast.
Stacie Robbins showed love to the team vending Lip Locker organic lipsticks. "I'm so proud of you, make millions!" she told the two young ladies whom she didn't know personally but knew that the pair had received $6,000 to launch their business through The Gray Matter Experience…which was founded by her daughter.
"I don't know them, but I know how important it is to Britney," the proud mom said.
This is a story about the Community Safety and Peace strategy of the Partnership for Safe and Peaceful Communities.
If you are an employer, you can hire young people at risk. If you are a community leader, you can help improve police-community relations. If you are a health care provider, you can support trauma-informed care to gun violence victims. If you are a funder, you can support any one of these efforts. Whatever you do, your voice matters when you speak up in support of policies that can make our neighborhoods safer. Reach out to learn more.