IJ Clinic’s South Side Pitch Contest Honors Small Chicago Businesses Confronting the Challenges of 2020

Judges and Audience Award Top Prizes to the Black Mall, a Marketplace of Black-Owned Businesses

The Black Mall owners
Dre Meekins and Cassiopeia Uhuru founded the Black Mall as an online directory in 2011.

A Chicago-based marketplace that connects consumers to Black-owned businesses won this year’s South Side Pitch, a “Shark Tank”-style competition hosted by the Law School’s Institute for Justice Clinic on Entrepreneurship. The seventh annual event, designed to showcase South Side entrepreneurs, is co-sponsored by the Polsky Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation, the University of Chicago Office of Civic Engagement, and United Airlines.

Although the contest typically focuses on early-stage businesses, this year’s event centered on established businesses that have taken on the challenges of 2020 in visionary ways. The $8,000 first-place prize went to The Black Mall, which includes an online business directory and a bricks-and-mortar shop in Chatham. Members of the public who watched the virtual competition in November also voted the Black Mall the “Community Favorite,” an award sponsored by United Airlines.

“The Black Mall wowed us with their energy, their sense of purpose, their vision for the future, and their answers to the judges' questions,” said Elizabeth Kregor, the director of the IJ Clinic and one of this year’s judges, along with Peggy A. Davis, vice president of Community Impact, Chicago Community Trust; Vincent Williams, president and CEO, Chicago Minority Supplier Development Council; and Susana L. Vasquez, associate vice president, the University of Chicago Office of Civic Engagement. “They fill a deep need in America right now, and their charisma drew all the judges—including the audience—into their vision.”

Kregor added that this year's finalists “were all inspiring examples of the entrepreneurial spirit [that is] alive and well on the South Side. Whether first- or fourth-generation entrepreneurs, they embody the vital combination of creativity and care for the customer that makes it possible for them to grow, even in a year like 2020.”

Organizers held this year’s contest virtually—and nearly doubled the amount of prize money to $20,000. Judges awarded the $7,000 second-place prize to New Magnolia Garden Center, a U-pick farm and garden center in Chicago’s Back of the Yards neighborhood. The Lemonade Land, which creates pop-up outdoor markets featuring small, Black-owned businesses in Chicago’s South Shore, Greater Grand Crossing, and Woodlawn neighborhoods, took the $5,000 third-place prize.

Prior winners have used their prizes to expand their businesses and create new jobs, Kregor said. Last year’s first-place winner, Dinobi Detergent, used its prize money to increase its marketing efforts and invest more in its product. Since winning, Dinobi Detergent has expanded to more retailers and several online platforms.

“Like the Black Mall, Dinobi Detergent was founded by a dynamic husband-wife duo. With the coaching, cash, and confidence they gained from South Side Pitch last year, they have reached the next level in their business,” Kregor said. “The IJ Clinic is proud to be their attorneys, too, as they expand into new supply and distribution chains.”

The IJ Clinic, which is affiliated with the national Institute for Justice, began at the Law School nearly 23 years ago to provide clinical training for law students and free legal assistance, support, and advocacy for low-income entrepreneurs in Chicago. Last spring, when the Illinois governor began shuttering nonessential businesses to in-person traffic, IJ students and faculty developed a website to drive traffic to Chicago-area businesses that were offering online shopping, curbside pickup, and delivery. Shop in Place Chicago now features more than 1,000 businesses from throughout the city and suburbs.

“The small businesses of Chicago define our neighborhoods' character, but they do so much more than that—they provide jobs, local purchasing power, convenience, and examples of what is possible with creativity and dedication and a loyal customer base,” Kregor said. “They are our economic engine and our community engine, and we need them now more than ever. They also need us now more than ever.”