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Annual Pitch Black event brings out more businesses concerned with black culture and spaces than products

PHOTO: THE COLLAB.PDX, ALEX KNOWNODY - Pitchers at the  fifth annual Pitch Black, which was held in the Wieden + Kennedy atrium August  15, 2019.

Pitch Black, the annual pitch fest for black and brown business owners from Portland, had a successful evening last Thursday. Fourteen founders pitched, laying out their product, business model and how much capital they need.

The event was held on the west side for the first time, in the atrium at Wieden + Kennedy, and the atmosphere was more upbeat than the usual visit-to-the-principal's-office feel of most VC events. There was a DJ for the social hour, food, and people in crisp suits and ties. Although the room is arranged like a Quaker meeting house, many of the pitchers said they were used to the call and response of African American churches and soon had the audience speaking their approval.

When one participant mentioned the recipe of Joe's Chicken as one of the great secrets of black Portland, the audience cracked up. Another pitcher said just the mention of Joe's Chicken made it an authentic event, and not wanting to give any spoilers, told people to ask their neighbor to explain.

Fresh talent

The event was MC'd, as usual, by the most prominent black business leader in Portland, Stephen Green. He is now director of operations for Pensole Design Academy, the footwear design school. The top four in the vote tally split $14,000 equally.

After 14 pitches the audience voted on their phones and the runaway winner was Renee Allums (36 % of the 226 votes) for her idea called #Tag, to track intellectual property (mostly music and artwork) using blockchain technology. The idea was not especially original or developed, but she was swarmed by well-wishers, including a lawyer and a software engineer who wanted to work with her. (www.tagyourit.biz)link

PHOTO: THE COLLAB.PDX, ALEX KNOWNODY - Renee Allums whose idea #Tag, a Wikipedia of hashtags, was easily voted most popular by the attendees. It aims to use blockchain to track intellectual property.

The idea seemed to resonate with the creative crowd because so many black artists, from the jazz innovators to the street artists of today, have had their work coopted without pay.

Allums works in brand development and marketing coordination at Nike Innovation's Valiant Labs, a new business incubator.

Her idea, #Tag, a Wikipedia for social media hashtags. It would be for keeping track of visuals, but could extend to other media.

Allums said that in 2014 Vine user Peaches Monroee's term "on fleek" went viral, then mainstream. Monroee never saw a penny. With blockchain she maybe could have controlled and been rewarded for her phrase.

After asking her form the audience if she had a team, and then approaching her on the break, Erin Gurley asked Allums if she needed help working on the back end of her application.

"She said she was interested," Gurley told the Business Tribune. She is a full stack software engineer. "I could make that happen for her, by building out an application using blockchain."

Asked if it's difficult, Gurley said yes. She's in the software development program at Alchemy Code Labs, which is across the street form Powell's Books. She has one month left to study.

"I think I could build out a prototype. It's just a matter of learning."

PHOTO: THE COLLAB.PDX, ALEX KNOWNODY - Other company founders who pitched on the night, including Haben Woldu (third from the right), a Media Biller at Wieden + Kennedy, whose Lucee will be a marketplace for Ethiopian home wares.

Safe

Although the pitch fests that make the news are usually focused on software and biotech, because that's where venture capital companies see astronomical returns, there was a theme at Pitch Black of people trying to create safe or comfortable spaces in Portland for African Americans many of whom have been dispersed across the metro area as their parents sold their houses in inner northeast.

Green has long said that when people think of black entrepreneurs, they think of one of three things: a bar, a barbershop or a beauty salon. While there were none of these, a common thread was shared, safe spaces. (See sidebar)

For example, Joy Alise-Davis presented her idea for the Saint Audre Tea House and Social Club. She said that there are around 35,000 black people in the Portland metro area, and they have lost their safe spaces. She grew up in Montego Bay, Jamaica, and making tea for her parents was a happy childhood memory. Now she wants to make tea for Portlanders.

CONTRIBUTED PHOTO: THE COLLAB.PDX, ALEX KNOWNODY - Ian Williams of Hood to Hood hugs it out.

Winner, winner, Joe's Chicken dinner

Along with Renee Allums the other three winners were: Jonathan Riley (Blaq Athlete, 9.3 %), and Joy Alise-Davis (Saint Audre Tea House and Social Club, 8 %) and Ian Williams (Hood to Hood, 8%).

Green told the Business Tribune, "A lot of the ideas are based around community and bringing people together this year. People see an opportunity around how can they build authentic places and spaces, to share food or ideas and build community? Blacks in Portland and the region live everywhere now. And if we go back 30 or 40 years ago, 80% of the black population lived in two zip codes. So they saw each other every day. But now we live everywhere. And so that means we're less likely to have the kind of interactions that we had 30 or 40 years ago, and people are longing for that in the black community."

Green called fundraising "a sheer anomaly" because less than 0.5% of companies ever raise any money.

"Most companies never raise a dime. They never get a loan even to go get customers. So, what I hope is that people can work on their ideas, and go after the most important investor of all, and that's a customer."

Green said what entrepreneurs can get out of the evening is moral support. "Even if people don't raise money here, there's nothing like having a group people cheering."

Shower sock/shoe

Steven Holt's story is familiar. He talked about having surgery on both feet in his 40s. The doctor told him to keep the wound dry but there was no good boot or bag to keep his foot dry in the shower. He researched the market and learned 30% or 90 million Americans will have to have foot or ankle surgery in their lives.

Holt pitched without showing a prototype or any images, although he stressed that he finally has received his utility patent. This is a patent for what the product does, rather than a design patent, which is for how it's made and looks.

Many have heard Holt's story before. (He was at Pitch Black in 2015.) It's been an arduous road. He said that to keep the business idea alive he and his family had faced foreclosure on their house two times. "I've been patent pending since April 2014. And now it's actually patented! It took us $30,000 and 15 years."

As pitches ago, it was not so much about the product but an inspirational never-give-up pitch.

"I dared to keep pushing forward because I'm confident that this not only is an answer for me, it's an answer for others," he said. "We're going into production this month."

Holt usually doesn't show a prototype for security reasons, and to not distract from his story.

"I was absolutely convinced that if I showed it, somebody will steal the idea," he said, then referenced Allums' and her blockchain security plans for intellectual property.

What he hoped for on this night was "some exposure, potential interest around investors to have some conversations about launching this thing. We're moving forward with it. I'm ready to go into production."

PHOTO: THE COLLAB.PDX, ALEX KNOWNODY - Pitchers and audience mixed at Pitch Black. The fifth annual event was held in the Wieden + Kennedy atrium.

Elaborate

Quaz Amir of South Philadelphia who couldn't afford a certain kind of Air Jordans when he was 11, because that's' the age the shoe size changed from junior to adult and prices leapt accordingly.

He showed a phot of his childhood row house in South Philadelphia and said, "We never had the money, we had to be creative on a day to day basis. I am a black man in America, I had to be creative. There were no handouts for me."

He created the Collab to "connect, create and collaborate, because that is a human experience. Before social media, you actually had to physically connect to people. We had to create, we had to solve problems, and from that we had to collaborate, work together to help each other."

The Collab's goal is to educate minorities, with free workshops and with mentorships. creativity with anyone. He would teach DJ skills. Others would teach photography workshops, videography, graphic design and branding.

He said "I don't answer these questions over social media because it's complicated."

Amir said there are Collabs in Denver, Los Angeles, and Brooklyn, and they are aiming at Portland, Seattle and London.

PHOTO: THE COLLAB.PDX, ALEX KNOWNODY - Jonathan Riley explains how Blaq Athlete could help young recruits be celebrated and rewarded rather than exploited and ignored, at Pitch Black at the Wieden + Kennedy atrium.

Japan

Perhaps the slickest looking presentation was by artist and designer Perez Westbrooks also known as Gaijin the Artist. He wants to open a boutique called Forever Hungry, with much of the product behind glass. He wants locally made products — no mugs or T-shirts from China. It would be stylish, and yet, "I want you to walk in and feel comfortable," he said.

Westbrooks would also have bi-weekly workshops on such subjects as how to design a T shirt. For snacks the only thing he would have is a cool vending machine full of Japanese products.

PMG: JOSEPH GALLIVAN - The audience voted by phone for their favorite business ideas, and the top four split $14,000.

Ethiopia

By day Haben Woldu, MBA, is a Media Biller at Wieden + Kennedy (part of the #weblack group), but her dream is to sell handmade Ethiopian home goods online in the US, to give underpaid women access to the $750 billion home goods market. The Company is named Lucee, after Lucy the first woman/fossil found in east Africa. She has spent half her life in the US but acutely aware of her privilege, is moving back to Ethiopia to get the platform up and running.

Many of the participants talked about "the culture" in the way Jamaicans do, as a specific black culture that is separate mainstream American culture and needs to be preserved.

Apparel designer George Jackson talked about "Our culture of the African diaspora and the spirit of creativity that flows through us," citing the basket weaving of the Gullah and Geechee islands of South Carolina or in Guinea, where the same materials are used in different ways.

"So that's why we say let the spirit do the work, it's not really on us. It's on the spirit."

Jackson studied at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York, and his partners were a graphic designer and an art director, to get the branding right.

They put the cut and sew, the graphics and the creative direction into one package for the brands called TK.

They call it a cut and sew, hand-made, gender-neutral fashion line that doesn't follow calendars but go on a "drop-by-drop basis."

PMG: JOSEPH GALLIVAN - Nike worker Renee Allums pitched #Teg at Pitch Black. The fifth annual event was held in the Wieden + Kennedy atrium.

Suited

Another designer, and another #Weblack Wieden + Kennedy staffer, Tim Blanchard is beginning Legacy, a place to buy vintage wear. Opposed to fast fashion (he said it takes 2,700 liters or 10 years' worth of one adult's drinking water to make a T-shirt), although admitting it is an indulgence, he sees it as "a marketplace for people to have a narrative with their clothing."

It would resemble Buffalo Exchange, but the meat of the online presence would be the stories that accompany each item of clothing.

Perhaps the most original niche idea was Jonathan Riley's Blaq Athlete, a place to support black athletes. Riley found at Oregon State University that everyone's first question was 'What sport do you play? even though he was a business major. He made a case for supporting the athletes instead of just exploiting them, and for educating their families about the realities of making it in sports. It struck a nerve inside the ad agency that has long been the temple of athletic branding.

The lineup was as follows:

Steven Holt - Shower Shoe

Quaz Amir - The Collab

Perez Westbrooks - Forever Hungry

Rob Lewis - Helpful Guides

Renee Allums - #TAG

Joy Alise Davis - Saint Audre

Jonathan Riley - Blaq Athlete

Haben Woldu - Lucee

Donovan Smith - Ignorant Reflections Media

RaShaunda Brooks - Young Gifted Black (YGB)

Meron Medhanie - Hide the new growth

Tim Blanchard - Legacy

Ian Williams - Hood to Hood

Portland business leaders were also visible. Paul Loving, of Holland & Knight, a transactional attorney whose practice focuses on the sports, entertainment and consumer products sectors, had a front row seat, at least in the beginning, and Ashley Henry of Business for a Better Portland was there, and had this comment:

"We are big supporters of Pitch Black. We've driven ticket sales, donations and post-event support for the entrepreneurs for the last four years. I's always heartening to see the community turn out to enthusiastically support the pitchers. That said, it's really discouraging that entrepreneurs of color continue to face the same barriers to capital access year after year. That's why BBPDX is involved in addressing the systemic issues that create those realities including policy drivers. We are convening a member workgroup to begin planning our policy approach on this issue for the 2020 legislative session.

I think of this issue in a similar way to our work with a local homeless shelter. Sure, we are happy to drive volunteer engagement at the shelter -- and we did turn out a lot of our members. But it would be unethical for us to continue turning out volunteers if we weren't simultaneously addressing the reasons that people fall into homelessness in the first place. That's why after our volunteer shifts were done, we convened a group of our members to work on proposals that were live in Salem at the time. The result was more funding for rental assistance that keeps people in their homes. Our goal should be to eliminate the experience of homelessness, not to recruit more volunteers. Similarly, while we are happy to support Pitch Black, we'd rather direct our energy to addressing the systemic barriers facing entrepreneurs of color."

Stephen Green, the director of operations for Pensole Design Academy and emcee of Pitch Black, summed up the mood of this year's entrepreneurs to the Business Tribune:

"A lot of the ideas are based around community and bringing people together this year. People see an opportunity around how can they build authentic places and spaces, to share food or ideas and build community? Blacks in Portland and the region live everywhere now. And if we go back 30 or 40 years ago, 80% of the black population lived in two zip codes. So they saw each other every day. But now we live everywhere. And so that means we're less likely to have the kind of interactions that we had 30 or 40 years ago, and people are longing for that in the black community."

Green called fundraising "a sheer anomaly" because less than 0.5% of companies ever raise any money.

"Most companies never raise a dime. They never get a loan even to go get customers. So, what I hope is that people can work on their ideas, and go after the most important investor of all, and that's a customer."

Green said what entrepreneurs can get out of the evening is moral support. "Even if people don't raise money here, there's nothing like having a group people cheering."


Joseph Gallivan
Reporter, The Business Tribune
971-204-7874
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