Remember Jay-Z’s “So Ambitious”? That bouncy track, produced by The Neptunes for “The Blueprint 3,” extolled the virtues of the goal-oriented mindset. Pharrell Williams — one-half of The Neptunes, currently the newly designated men’s creative director of the French luxury fashion house Louis Vuitton — co-produced the song, rhyming its motivational chorus (“If you believe it, then you could conceive it…”). How fitting then that Pharrell recently took time away from brainstorming what’s next in menswear to help judge the third annual Black Ambition “Demo Day” competition in downtown Manhattan’s Tribeca neighborhood.
Decked out in a forest green Louis Vuitton suit, a blond Caesar and tinted glasses, Pharrell held court onstage last week at Spring Studios, conversing about entrepreneurialism with Black Ambition CEO Felecia Hatcher and Dave Gilboa, co-founder of the popular eyeglass retailer Warby Parker. A rapt audience of hundreds of smartly dressed young Black and brown budding business execs visually reflected Black Ambition’s overall mission. Launched by Pharrell in 2020, “Black Ambition is a nonprofit initiative working to close the opportunity and wealth gap through entrepreneurship,” according to its vision statement. “We invest capital and resources in high-growth startups founded by Black and Hispanic entrepreneurs.”
The preamble of conversation about the summits and pitfalls of new businesses eventually segued into major monetary awards for Demo Day winners. From an initial pool of over 2,000 applicants, Black Ambition whittled competitors down to 36 finalists, who all received between $20K and $250K to develop their young companies. Eight frontrunners advanced to the Demo Day 2023 competition, where they pitched their businesses live at Spring Studios for a chance at the grand prize: one million dollars.
Judges assembled to choose the winners included Jay Lundy (senior VP of Combs Global), Erik Moore (managing director of Base Ventures), and Louis Vuitton client strategist Marilyn Webber Muffs. Emmy-winning public speaker Mario Armstrong hosted Demo Day all afternoon into the early evening hours. An onstage discussion between former prize winners Kadidja Dosso of organic beauty supplier Dosso Beauty (2021 HBCU Grand Prize Winner) and Karissma Yve of print-on-demand jewelry designer Gildform (a 2022 General Prize Winner) took place during a break between pitches.
Pharrell’s 45-minute fireside-style chat took place as judges deliberated before the final winners were announced. Raucous applause rang throughout the spacious hall as Armstrong first announced a $250,000 award for Maïré Bavarday-Rosa, the Guadeloupean CEO of Ecomspaces (a one-stop shop for e-commerce solutions). Leslie Winston III of North Carolina A&T University, co-founder of the social e-reader company Monocle, won the $200,000 HBCU Grand Prize.
Lastly, with audience anticipation at a fever pitch, Armstrong presented the Demo Day 2023 Grand Prize winner: Antoinette Banks, CEO and founder of the parent-facing app Expert IEP, which optimizes existing Individualized Education Plans with predictive AI for children diagnosed with disabilities.
“Black Ambition is a feeling; it’s an overwhelming drive to show up consistently in excellence to create lasting, unapologetic impact,” Banks told the crowd, following a brief photo op holding her oversized million-dollar check.
“For so long, Black and brown kids with learning differences have been underestimated and forgotten. Earning this one-million-dollar prize puts our kids back in the forefront, it gets people thinking deeply about solving the problems in special education. As founder and CEO, I am deeply grateful to Black Ambition for believing in me, holding space for me, and breaking down barriers. It’s clear that Black Ambition is more than a prize award; it’s a shift in expectation for our culture.”
Guests filed out into a reception area, the walls outfitted like a curated museum exhibit dedicated to Black Ambition, for celebratory cocktails. Drinks in hand, invitees gazed at a wall-length program timeline labeled “Fueling Ambition,” detailing the opening period for applications (March), the applicant mentorship stage (June), and finalist announcements (September). As young, gifted and Black entrepreneurs of color hunted down the hors d’oeuvres, huge displays showcased CEO photos and business summaries for former winners like Algodia Hair Care and SkiiMoo Tech. Networking — and a healthy amount of flirtation — flowed organically.
At the end of the evening, Pharrell made his way to a microphone for some parting words: “I hope that [Black Ambition] inspires other organizations with similar if not the same exact goals,” he said, “to just see more Black and brown founders, more Black and brown ideas, and more of the world affected by these concepts. And life and convenience for humanity. Changing the world. And not having another one of our children ever feeling inferior, ever, but instead feeling encouraged.”
Miles Marshall Lewis (@MMLunlimited) is an author and Harlem-based cultural critic whose work has appeared in The New York Times Magazine, GQ, Rolling Stone and many other outlets. Lewis is currently finishing a cultural biography of comedian Dave Chappelle, his follow-up to Promise That You Will Sing About Me: The Power and Poetry of Kendrick Lamar.
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