Next Level Pitch Event Gives Platform to Entrepreneurs

Next Level Pitch Event Gives Platform to Entrepreneurs
Next Level pitch contestants during MED Week (Amanda Martin)

There’s nothing like a little competition to bring out the best in people.

A key event in the Little Rock Regional Chamber’s Minority and Enterprise Development (MED) Week is the Next Level pitch competition. Next Level pits entrepreneurs from the minority community against each other in a Shark Tank-inspired showdown from which two winners emerge.

Pitch applicants are judged and one winner is chosen by Chamber partner The Venture Center while the Audience Choice winner is selected by attendees both live and remote. Winners receive a prize package designed to help their business in its development.

The Next Level competitors bring innovative ideas from established businesses before a panel of “sharks” who have a range of experience in business diversity and organizational and business development.

Eight competitors brought their ideas to the floor during the competition at the Mosaic Templars Cultural Center in Little Rock. Winners were Ar’Jillian Gilmer of Gilmer’s Learning Solutions (Judge’s Choice) and Jushan and Miya Blackmon of The Little Rock Lightning (Audience Choice).

Gilmer’s Learning Solutions provides K-5 instruction in all areas and 6-12 instruction in literacy and social studies/history.

For adults, GLS offers training in Adult Basic Literacy, ESL Literacy, Science of Reading, Just Words and READ 180. GLS wants to improve opportunities for all adults as well as to let teen parents know that parenthood does not mean the end of learning and self-improvement.

“Adults, we need help going from one level to the next,” Gilmer said. “We need help oftentimes discovering what we’re fully capable of doing.”

GLS partners with Resurgent TV to provide the community with educational content, with Pulaski County Youth Services to provide out-of-school educational help and with The Family Development Center @ Catherine’s House to provide academic support, mentorship and other services.

“Education is extremely important to me,” Gilmer said. “It’s one of those things they can’t take away from you.”

Since the departure of the Arkansas RimRockers in 2007, Little Rock had been bereft of a professional basketball team. The Blackmons, who once ran a recreational league, wanted the city to have a team it could call its own and applied their experience to form The Little Rock Lightning franchise in 2019.

In 2021, the Lightning made its debut in The Basketball League (TBL), a 29-team professional league (expanding in 2022) that plays from April to June and has completed its fourth season.

“The experience and receptiveness of the community was an inspiration,” Jushan Blackmon said.

The inspiration became The Lightning, as the Blackmons saw an opportunity to use basketball as a way to perform community outreach.

The Lightning partners with churches, schools and local businesses and, while offering players a chance to show their skills, also uses its position in the community to minister to local youth.

“There is so much potential and undiscovered talent in Little Rock, and we want to not only give those players recognition but also bring awareness to our city,” Jushan said. The Lightning offers support and encouragement to the community through appearances at local schools, churches, youth camps and clinics. Lightning players are provided an opportunity to learn off-the-court skills like financial literacy while sharpening their leadership and teamwork qualities.

In its debut season The Lightning went 7-17 and finished seventh in the TBL’s nine-team Central Conference.

“It takes a lot of patience. It takes a lot of ups and downs,” Jushan said. “From here on it’s up. It’s up. That’s what I think.”