Business pitch contest empowers entrepreneurs

Young minds seek to build business acumen and create a better future.

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An enthusiastic crowd turned out for the fourth annual “Shark Tank”–style competition at Union Chapel to hear young entrepreneurs present their business ideas to a panel of experienced executives. 

In collaboration with Advancing Black Pathways of JPMorgan Chase, the World of Money Youth Business Pitch competition shines a spotlight on bright African American youth and their ideas to create a better future. 

Chief executive officer for World of Money Sabrina Lamb said the event seeks to empower young entrepreneurs and bring their business ideas to the forefront. “We want the youth to understand that entrepreneurship is one of the most important pathways to financial security and generational wealth,” Lamb said. 

Lamb said all of these young people have “ideas that can change the world,” but if they are not given an opportunity to share those ideas and garner attention, they often go unrealized. 

Lamb said she was vacationing on Martha’s Vineyard six years ago when she had the idea to offer Island kids and visitors the opportunity to participate. “We know there are very bright young people here, and it is a very special place,” Lamb said.

The entire experience of the competition, Lamb said, provides valuable real-world knowledge to young people that will prove useful in the world of business. 

“We provide a platform in which these young people can shine,” Lamb said. “The entire process where students have to know their business, provide a video walkthrough, speak in front of strangers, and speak clearly and eloquently gives them a good start in the business sphere.”

For Lamb, forcing children out of their comfort zones early on builds their confidence and their ability to think actively on their feet. “Our children really have to be thrust into situations from a very young age where they can stand and deliver their idea — that’s a big part of owning and operating a business,” Lamb said. 

The event awarded more than $15,000 in total cash prizes to the first-, second-, and third-place winners of each age group.

First-place winners of the young moguls age group (ages 7 to 12), siblings Ethan and Sarah Rochester of Pomperaug Elementary and Rochambeau Middle School, presented their business, Miracle Threads, to a panel of receptive judges. 

Their company, which has been in business for nearly two years, focuses on selling Afro-Brazilian designer pillows at an affordable price. The idea came to light after Sarah attended an after school sewing program and impressed her mother with her work. The brother-and-sister pair then decided to pursue the business venture. 

The siblings said Afro-Brazilian pillows are “a largely underrepresented and expensive” field of the designer pillow market. She said the unique and colorful designs of Afro-Brazilian art aren’t often seen in designer pillows, and if they are, they are usually unaffordable. “We want to make these beautiful pillows affordable and available to all,” Sarah told the audience and judges.

The company donates one pillow to St. Jude’s Hospital for every 10 they sell.

Sarah and Ethan told The Times on a phone call that at first, they were nervous to present because there were other business ideas being pitched that seemed more technical and were addressing very serious issues in society. But once they took the stage, presented their idea, and got a standing ovation from the crowd, the two young entrepreneurs said they were happy with the outcome. 

With their $2,000 prize money, Ethan and Sarah plan on expanding their website, and buying a new sewing machine and embroidery machine.

They also hope to sell pillows to the graduating class of the high school near their home in Southbury, Conn., with custom embroidery as a new feature. 

The first-place winner of the moguls age category (ages 13 to 17) was another sibling duo, Skylar and Sunday Curwen of Baldwin High School, with their business Sun in the Sky Pink. 

With help from their mother, a member of the Alpha Kappa Alpha sorority, and their father, a member of the Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity, the sisters have created a unique sunglass business that caters to members of the first ever African American intercollegiate Greek social organizations in the U.S.

“All of our sunglasses have the AKA insignia on them. They are high-quality, durable, and there is a style for almost everyone,” the sisters told the audience. 

In the super moguls category (ages 18 to 23), Hilary Yeboah of Bentley University won first place for her business venture, Early Start — an online database app that helps high school students land internships and learn about valuable educational opportunities that exist for them as a minority group. “Many students in minority neighborhoods don’t know about a lot of internships and great opportunities that are available to them. This app would bring those opportunities out for them to see,” Hilary said.

Sekou Kaalund, JPMorgan Chase managing director and head of Advancing Black Pathways, said the pitch competition is a great opportunity to foster good teamwork, confidence, and business acumen in today’s African American youth population. 

“We look at it as the art of the possible,” Kaalund said. “Kids come together, they work in teams with family or friends, and they begin to think about what it takes to launch a business and be successful.”

But Kaalund said the event isn’t just meant to benefit the presenters, but to remind those in the audience that “this generation has incredible ideas that can fix many issues in society today.”

“The underlying concept is about helping others,” Kaalund said.

Kaalund said he was impressed with the way each age group leveraged their various talents, and was “absolutely fascinated” by the broad spectrum of ideas each group came up with.

Whether it’s a drone that helps save lives, or pillows that highlight the art and artists of a particular culture, Kaalund said each idea seeks to build a better future for America and the world.