The one-day competition challenged area students and young professionals to find solutions to problems facing the African American community in Chicago.
Third-year law student Kevin Smith (’18) walked into the Pitch Black competition confidently, with only his legal background to help him in the single-day event in which teams pitched innovative solutions to problems facing communities of color in Chicago. He put on his “entrepreneurial hat” and prepared himself for the challenge ahead. By the end of the day, Smith and his team were among the winners of the competition. They presented their idea before Chicago city officials, business leaders, and community activists over the summer.
Harvard Business School alumni Anthony Tucker, Benjamin Cole, and Luthan Hill created the competition to leverage the platform they had to positively impact the African American community. Working with professional basketball player Dwayne Wade, who also had an interest in benefitting the community, they formed Pitch Black as an independent project with a focus on Chicago. The goal was for students with different backgrounds to collaborate on community issues—including education, economic development, community engagement, and public health—and form innovative solutions in a short amount of time. Winning ideas were selected from each category.
Smith was drawn to the competition because the event promised to spur creative ideas that could be actionable and implemented in the community immediately. He wanted to leverage his legal knowledge to come up with entrepreneurial approaches to solving complex problems.
“I thought it would be a great opportunity to merge a diverse set of skilled backgrounds and perspectives for a good cause…it was a rare chance,” says Smith.
Smith did not know who was on his team until the day he showed up. Hosted at Harvard Business School, the event drew participants from area universities as well as local young professionals. When he arrived, he was paired with three Harvard Business School students, one student from Harvard School of Design, and one product manager at a Cambridge tech company.
“We had a really dynamic team…we got together and started brainstorming with all these ideas, which was great because we were all married into different perspectives which allowed for variety,” he says.
The teams were given three hours to come up with an idea, prepare a two-minute pitch, and present it in front of a panel of city officials, business leaders, and community activists who served as judges.
Smith and his team came up with a community-centered real estate investment trust (REIT). The project was aimed to reduce the racial wealth gap by democratizing real estate investment and creating opportunities for underserved communities to generate income. The REIT allows for community members to be stakeholders in their neighborhood, rather than own an individual piece of property.
“Historically, folks trying to make ends meet don’t have time to prioritize investing, so we wanted to de-risk our model by inviting an impact investor to match every dollar that the community would put in,” says Smith.
The plan is to use the capital made from the REIT to purchase and develop vacant lots in Chicago neighborhoods in order to have corporate tenants provide a stream of rental income for the shareholders and facilitate monetary growth in these communities.
Smith emphasizes that the goal was to create an easy entry point for community members to participate in the economic growth of their city.
When it was time to present his ideas to the community in the Chicago, Smith says he was excited because they had the attention of folks who could help implement their ideas in a meaningful way.
“It was humbling to get their feedback, and to know that we can continue this conversation and to disseminate this project in other communities and cities,” he says.
Smith says his legal education was an advantage in the competition. While the law is sometimes viewed as a regulation and a restraint, he says BU Law has shown him how the law could facilitate innovation and growth.
“We were competing with many of the brightest young people, but I took a lot of confidence in knowing that I could contribute by leveraging my law background,” he says.
Smith, who will be joining the Boston office at Goodwin Proctor as a corporate associate after graduation, says his experience in the competition has validated the notion that he can use his education in creative ways to make an impact in the community, and that he will continue to think creatively and to collaborate with other people from different disciplines.
“We came up with an idea that was good enough to reach the ears of some of the most prominent power brokers in one of the biggest cities,” says Smith. “We were able to share our ideas with the mayor, city council, investors, and various stakeholders…it was really encouraging to know that I’m on the right track.
Reported by Natalie Carroll (COM’19)
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