It came down to five finalists, and on July 8th, entrepreneurs competed for the grand prize of $15,000 at the Pitch Black Competition Finale at the Creighton University Harper Center.
The Midlands African Chamber (MAC) event, in its third year, gives a platform for Black and minority individuals to not only showcase their business ideas but also provide the entrepreneurs an opportunity for growth in its accelerator program.
The event featured a business expo and three speakers: Hogoe Kpessou, Dr. Derreck Kayongo, and Ishmael Samuel.
A judging panel of industry experts listened to pitches from the business owners with benchmarks of innovation, market viability, social impact and scalability in mind.
Securing first place in the competition was Local Art Plug.
Founder Xavier Jackson took home both the Pitch Black Champion 2023 award and “Investors Pick,” for a total of $15,000. Second place went to Cherish Perkins LLC, third place was Serenity Home Solutions, LLC, fourth place was Island Chill 402, and fifth place went to Greenlexi, LLC.
“The Pitch Black 2023 event was a catalyst for opportunity igniting talent,” said Karine Sokpoh, CEO of the Midlands African Chamber. “Talent knows no boundaries, race or borders. The Midlands African Chamber embraces the diversity of experiences, perspectives, and skills that BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, People of Color) and immigrant entrepreneurs bring to the table. By doing so, we not only empower them but also cultivate a vibrant ecosystem where innovation can thrive.”
Sokpoh noted that the accelerator allows the cohort to engage with the community for mentoring and funding opportunities.
“The MAC accelerator is a great example of Ubuntu i.e., the power of humanity, in action,” she said.
MBJ touched base with each finalist to learn more about their companies.
Local Art Plug – 1st Place
Conceptualized by Xavier Jackson, Local Art Plug connects local art lovers, businesses and nonprofits in the community through opportunities to engage and purchase art from local artists. With its history going back to 2017, its mission is to create stronger art communities that are accessible.
In addition to winning funding, Jackson received marketing, accounting and legal assistance, along with a scholarship from Metropolitan Community College, coaching services and coworking space. Above all, he said the accelerator program proved to be valuable to the whole cohort.
“[The accelerator] in itself made me feel like I already won the competition regardless of what the results would have been because it just helped us,” Jackson said. “A lot of us got along a lot further than we would have had if we had been stuck to our own devices and tried to figure things out.”
Read this week’s cover story for a more in-depth feature on Jackson and Local Art Plug.
Cherish Perkins LLC – 2nd Place
Founding Cherish Perkins LLC in June 2022, 22-year-old Cherish Perkins set out to create a custom apparel business for those who didn’t feel represented in the current fashion industry. Using the tagline “Embrace Every Opportunity While Cherishing Your Inner Self,” Perkins’ website displays her works from sketch to reality.
“I started an apparel business because I remember growing up not seeing many African American fashion designers like myself or felt like I had to conform to societal norms because my style was different,” Perkins said.
She designs apparel for women, men and kids and offers styling and alteration services. She said she creates garments with self-confidence and personal expression in mind. Something she’s dreamed of ever since she was 5.
“I used to spend my early childhood sitting at the kitchen table sketching people in fashionable outfits and watching the world-famous fashion competition show, ‘Project Runway,’” she said.
She aspires to expand the business globally and release new collections each season.
“I am hoping to make an impact on today’s youth and young girls,” Perkins said. “I want to use my experience as an example to show them that you are never too young to chase after your dreams and your dreams are never too big.”
To book a service with Perkins, visit www.cherishperkins.com.
Serenity Home Solutions, LLC – 3rd Place
After seeing her brother struggle with PTSD, Vera Mahadi wanted to create a comprehensive and holistic solution for treatment. Serenity Home Solutions offers residential and transitional homes for those experiencing mental illness, behavioral and substance abuse disorders.
“[My brother’s] condition continues to deteriorate, and that’s what inspired us to create Serenity Home Solutions, so no other family will have to experience what my brother is going through,” Mahadi said. “In Omaha in the last 12 months 20.3% of adults were diagnosed with a mental illness and 81% of them have not got any treatment.”
The company is focusing on individualized care plans, serving individuals that don’t meet the income requirements to be treated at many nonprofit organizations. Mahadi, who founded the company with Hakim Lado, said case management focuses on following up on individuals and includes wellness and nutrition plans.
“We strive to become advocates and caretakers for the population affected with mental illness, behavioral and substance abuse disorders,” she said. “It is so unfortunate that our culture has put such a stigma on mental illness, and this stigma makes people who are struggling hide in isolation. We want to work with the community to break the stigma because everyone deserves help and hope.”
More information on Serenity Home Solutions can be found at serenity-hs.com.
Island Chill 402 – 4th Place
Following the birth of her son, Shawnie Hernandez was not ready to return to work. She took a leap of faith and instead flexed her entrepreneurial muscles with the start of Island Chill 402.
A beverage truck specializing in frozen lemonade, slushies and fruit boba tea, the truck can be hired for corporate events and parties alike. Additionally, Island Chill 402 can be found at upcoming community events such as Afro Fest Omaha and HutchFest.
Looking to the future, Hernandez has ambitions to expand the impact she has on the community.
“I would like to open a family-friendly coffee shop in North Omaha,” she said. “I hope to encourage anyone interested in starting their own business.”
To hire Island Chill 402 for an event, visit islandchill402.com.
Greenlexi, LLC – 5th Place
Artez and Dorinda Young wanted to provide a platform for minority-owned businesses to share their services in one convenient place. They created Greenlexi, LLC in 2020, a web-based directory to connect “conscious consumers with minority-owned businesses that are disadvantaged,” Artez Young said.
The directory, greenlexi.com, now has over 400 businesses across the U.S. in numerous categories from lawyers to home improvement. Young said they are currently expanding content on the website to provide resources to consumers.
“For instance, if someone’s looking to buy a house, there’s a lot of minority people that just don’t understand that process,” he said. “We’re looking to create and/or provide content that’s going to educate them.”
Greenlexi is also aiming to provide resources for business owners or those looking to start a business.
“I have 20 years of experience in the financial realm, a lot of it in retail banking,” Young said. “In my current position, I work for the state of Nebraska, and I come in contact with a lot of the types of businesses that I’m talking about so I’m actually working with locals, and I see the struggles.”
In the coming months, Young said the team will be making improvements to the website with the knowledge gained through the Pitch Black accelerator program.