A Wells Fargo employee with plans to build a referral network for fellow business owners now has $5,000 to fund his idea after winning a Charlotte pitch contest for young African-American male entrepreneurs.
Chris Freeman, 29, won City Startup Labs’ version of “Shark Tank” for his company, SoloGo, a concept for an online and mobile platform that helps budding entrepreneurs network with other business owners and find suppliers, advisers or lenders. In addition to a cash prize, Freeman and four other competition winners will get the chance to grow their businesses at Packard Place, the uptown startup incubator.
Freeman, who works in Wells Fargo’s corporate banking group, was part of City Startup Labs’ second group. The program, which launched its inaugural class last year, is a 15-week entrepreneurial academy that, in collaboration with the Urban League of Central Carolinas, helps African-American males, ages 18 to 34, develop skills to build businesses.
In the fall, both organizations will launch a more inclusive education program to teach women and the elderly how to get their hands on capital to start businesses, said Urban League CEO Patrick Graham.
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And in January, City Startup Labs plans to start a “Center of Excellence,” a business accelerator to help close the socioeconomic gap among young black males. The center will also offer incentives to attract entrepreneurial talent to Charlotte, said Henry Rock, City Startup Labs’ founder and executive director.
On Wednesday, Rock praised the eight entrepreneurs who pitched their companies inside a packed auditorium at UNC Charlotte’s Center City campus. A panel of four judges critiqued each business on whether the founders created a product that could actually work; if their business model addressed a problem and offered a solution; and how each founder planned to grow their business in the next 60 days.
Freeman, who spent the weekends and evenings after work talking up his idea to entrepreneurs in Atlanta and Charlotte, said he’ll use a bulk of his prize money to register as a limited liability corporation and create a website that will market the company and solicit customer feedback.
At first, he wanted to develop a “mobile Craigslist” of blue collar jobs that would link users with mechanics, painters or landscapers.
“We found out that it wasn’t feasible,” he said. “There’s a lot of competition out there.”
Rock, along with Harold Thompson, owner of Charlotte-based marketing agency Clever Genius Media, helped Freeman shape his referral network idea, Freeman said.
“Going through the program, we’re taught to fail early and fail fast,” Freeman said. “If you have an idea, that’s fine. Go out, validating that with potential customers. Start asking questions.”
Other companies that presented Wednesday included:
▪ Requestz Systems: A nightlife app meant to improve communication between venues and guests; founded by Alexander Drummond
▪ Eat.Work.Play 24/7: A social platform to optimize the work-life balance by using user’s LinkedIn accounts to connect them with interests and products; founded by Davon Bailey
▪ Detailed Block: An independent news site that focuses on Charlotte’s tech startup culture; founded by James Stewart Jr.
▪ Future Endeavors: Company that seeks to empower youth by encouraging them to be entrepreneurial; also a seller of motivational apparel; founded by Andre Russell
▪ Nomadic Technologies: Data company developing software delivering metrics and solutions for out-of-home digital advertising; founded by Brandon Terrell
▪ Kingdom Life: Provides professional private sports and character coaching for boys and girls through college and beyond; founded by Rashad McGee
▪ Wave Smoother: A product that helps African-American men maintain thin waves without needing to use a hairbrush; founded by James Hall
The Urban League plans to donate an additional $10,000 to four other winners depending on their progress at Packard Place in the next six months. They are: Eat. Work. Play (2nd place); Nomadic Technologies (3rd place); Detailed Block (4th place); and Wave Smoother (5th place).