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At Gray Matter's Pitch Competition, Job Platform for Teens Wins $5K

Nicholas Goodloe, Taylor Simmons and Khadijah Williams, three high school student from Chicago, noticed a problem in their communities: Teens lacked access to jobs (as well as opportunities to get experience to get qualified for jobs) and businesses are constantly looking for quality part-time (affordable) workers. What could they do to help?

The three teens have an idea they call HireUp. It's a job platform that will connect teens to job openings at local businesses. Teens can fill out a profile with their experience, GPA, classes, after school activities, as well as personality traits. Businesses pay a monthly subscription fee to post jobs and recruit on the site.

"This app could target teens to help get them off the street, and have something proactive to do," said Goodloe, a 15-year-old sophomore at Kenwood Academy. "Teens do a lot of reckless things, and they need to find something good to do."

And the HireUp founders just won $5,000 to take that idea to reality.

The teen-founded startup is the product of Gray Matter Experience, an entrepreneurship training program for black high school students in Chicago that kicked off this year. For the past nine weeks, students worked out of Blue1647 to come up with a business solution to a community issue, develop business plans and sales projections, create websites and app mockups, while receiving mentorship and skills training from black tech and business leaders (they also had workshops on additional tech skills, such as DJing, film production, and 3D printing). The culmination was Pitch Black, a Shark Tank style pitch competition held this weekend at The Revival in Hyde Park, with $20,000 in seed funding up for grabs.

HireUp took the top prize of $5,000. "It makes all those sleepless and stressful weeks really worth it," said Williams, a 17-year-old senior at Lincoln Park High School. "I’ve always wanted to run my own business. Being able to learn the steps to [start a business], it really does help. I’m excited for the future."

At Pitch Black, students pitched their ideas, business plans and sales projections to a live audience and a panel of judges, including Maria Guerra Lapacek, commissioner at the city of Chicago's department of business affairs and consumer protection; Jimmy Odom, senior vice president for innovation in the state of Illinois; Pat E. Perkins, leadership coach and professional speaker; and Rendel Solomon, principle at Muller & Monroe asset management.

Four other teams pitched their ideas and received funding:

  • 2nd place (winning $4,500): LipLocker, a service that provides customizable lipstick colors as well as DIY lipstick kits, with all-natural ingredients.

  • 3rd place (winning $4,000) Let's Link! a mobile app that connects teens to events and activities in their communities.

  • 4th place (winning $3,500) Prescover, a web directory that connects startups to collaborate and advertise their products and services.

  • 5th place (winning $3,000) TechPhresh, an organic cold press juice company that uses FarmBot technology to harvest fresh fruit all year round.

Britney Robbins, founder of Gray Matter Experience, said the competition gave students the additional feedback they need to move forward (judges peppered students with questions ranging from liability to employment regulation to market size).

"I was very impressed with students, their poise and stage presence, and the way they were able to explain their business to the audience," she said. "This did a good job of motivating them to think a bit deeper about how this business could work, and how serious it could be."

From here, she'll spend the next few months working with students to actually get their startups off the ground using the seed funding they won at the competition (the funds may shuffle a bit, depending on who is planning on working on their startup moving forward, she said). Robbins said they'll start recruiting for their next cohort in January.

Robbins, who previously worked with youth entrepreneurship organization Future Founders, started Gray Matter Experience to give black youth the resources, mentors, business training and capital to create businesses that serve their community.

Several of the students at the event said they always knew they wanted to start a business, but didn't know how to get their ideas off the ground. That meant they ran into a few challenges: Goodloe said time management was his biggest lesson, as his team juggled developing their business while going to school in the fall. Brashayia Kelly, a 15-year-old sophomore at King College Prep, and a founder of LipLocker said they struggled to find the right way to build their solution.

But through Gray Matter Experience, she said she's now looking forward to continuing to work on the startup, with the goal of getting pop up shops in stores next year.

"I liked that we could go step-by-step to create a business," she said. "It didn’t feel like work, it was fun."

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