These Black entrepreneurs won a total of $100,000 from the first-ever NBA Foundation Pitch Competition
Before the 72nd NBA All-Star Weekend was dominated by storylines about some of the globe’s most wealthy and athletic elite, Thursday night’s focus was on problem solvers seeking to find success for their businesses. At the Salt Palace Convention Center, eight ambitious entrepreneurs—four based in Utah—found themselves on the world’s stage competing at the NBA Foundation Pitch Competition.
In partnership with the National Black MBA Association and Utah Black Chamber of Commerce, the pitch competition aimed to grow the next generation of Black entrepreneurs and tech leaders. It was the first of its kind to be sponsored by the NBA Foundation.
“On All-Star Weekend, the world’s eyes are watching,” said Greg Taylor, executive director of the NBA Foundation. Despite only three contestants ultimately earning cash prizes, each business owner recognized the opportunity that lay before them and was excited to participate.
“Brand awareness is sometimes one of the hardest things,” said Jenna White, owner of Empire Body Waxing, before winning the competition and the grand prize of $50,000. “It can be hard out here to be the business owner and the marketer and … all the things. So I’m mostly grateful for that.”
White, who watched old episodes of ABC’s hit show “Shark Tank” in preparation for her pitch, will have even more to be grateful for when she cashes her big check. But before using her prize money to help her Murray-based body waxing business grow into its namesake, she had to make good on a promise.
“We all made an agreement [that] whoever won would take everyone out to dinner,” White said of a pre-competition arrangement between her and the other contestants. “So I’m going to get everyone Little Caesars. Then, I would like to upgrade some stuff in the salon because we just moved. Then [it’s onto] Utah County, Davis County, Weber county and then the world.”
Contestants came from across the country, with the second and third-place winners hailing from Memphis and Boston, respectively. Second-place winner Amber Hayes admitted that it was stressful pitching on such a big stage. “It was a little scary at first,” said the co-founder and CEO of SecondKeys, a software company that uses AI to predict when a property is ready for preventative maintenance. “But afterward, it was alright. … Once we got [back] on stage and I won, it was a shock.”
Hayes left Salt Lake City $35,000 richer, planning to use the new funds to help SecondKeys develop as it prepares to enter the financial technology industry.
“We narrowed down the [entrepreneurs] that we thought were at the top,” said Kimmy Paluch, an investor and managing partner at Beta Boom and one of the judges for Thursday’s event. “We did have numeric scores against each one, but we made it more of a qualitative conversation because numbers don’t always give you the right answer. Did they articulate their problem and the solution well enough? Do they know their market and do they also demonstrate their differentiation? It came down to that, who best articulated their business.”
Three of Utah’s local entrepreneurs fell short of the judges’ criteria, coming up shy of the cash prizes. Still, it was a good learning process for contestants as they got an introspective look into their businesses while working hard to reach the final stage of the competition.
“We qualified for the competition through a rigorous selection process … which involved submitting a detailed application and providing information about our business, our impact and our plans for the future,” said Gladymir Philippe, founder and CEO of Kado, Inc., which helps universities and companies plan, track and manage their experiential learning projects. “Being a part of the NBA’s first Black business All-Star Pitch Competition is a great honor for us and highlights how deep we’ve come to understanding the future of learning and working together for businesses and students.”
While most of the contestants did not know each other before this process, Philippe did have a connection with Blendyd Studios CEO Morgan Williams. Williams’ Lehi-based software development company assists trucking companies with driver recruitment and efficiency. It was the brainchild of her late twin brother, Cameron Russell Williams, who continues to be remembered for what he did as an entrepreneur in the technology industry.
“With the passing of my brother, my family has set up various scholarships and awards,” Williams said. “Last year, Gladymir was actually the recipient of what is known as the Cameron Russell Williams Impact Award through the Governor’s Office.”
Much like Williams’ and Philippe’s work is meant to do, Thursday’s contest was put on in hopes of positively impacting the community as a whole. All of the participating entrepreneurs were optimistic the competition would have far-reaching effects.
“I feel this [event] is especially important because it lets people see that an organization who has predominantly Black players doesn’t just have Black players,” said Kandi Tesen, the founder and owner of the plant-based vegan bakery Eats. “They understand that we have communities and are out here in the world doing big things.”
Williams may have said it best on Thursday when she claimed entrepreneurship is one of the most delusional journeys someone can take. “You’re just a person in this world who saw a problem and you, and kind of you alone, decided that you were the person to solve that problem,” she said.
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