Chicago—When Chicago resident Donna Beasley went looking for a gift for her young niece, she never expected to emerge from the experience the winner of a fierce competition for South Side business owners. She just wanted a book to encourage her niece to read, and she wanted it to feature diverse characters that her niece could relate to. But after searching four bookstores, she only found books that featured white children. So she decided to do what any frustrated but determined American would do: start a business. And her app, KaZoom Kids Books, was born. Before long, Beasley and her partner Angela Williams were presenting a bold new idea to a crowd of hundreds of residents from Chicago’s South Side at the 2017 annual South Side Pitch.
The idea behind KaZoom is simple: the app offers a subscription-based library of interactive, digital books that feature children of color. For users, KaZoom is similar to Netflix or Amazon Prime, but it offers books that KaZoom commissions and develops into interactive experiences. As the entrepreneurs explained in their presentation, the app turns screen time into reading time. The audience at South Side Pitch realized KaZoom was filling a genuine need for local families in a fresh and exciting way and voted it the most innovative up-and-coming business on Chicago’s South Side.
South Side Pitch is hosted by the Institute for Justice Clinic on Entrepreneurship (IJ Clinic), which is based at the University of Chicago. The clinic provides free legal assistance, access to resources and advocacy for low-income Chicago entrepreneurs. More than 160 local businesses competed in this year’s South Side Pitch, which was first held in 2014. KaZoom became one of five finalists to present in front of three judges and a crowd of more than 200 South Siders at the Polsky Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation.
Jimmy Odom, Director of ChicagoNEXT, opened the event with a keynote speech detailing his first brush with entrepreneurship. He recalled organizing block-by-block basketball tournaments as a teenager, stressing, “Necessity is the mother of invention.” Odom argued that South Siders are uniquely positioned to create businesses that thrive by solving the pressing needs of the South Side.
In addition to KaZoom, South Side Pitch awarded prizes to re:work training, a software sales training company, and Back of the Yards Coffee, a roastery and coffee shop in Chicago’s Back of the Yards neighborhood. Each business is based in and hires employees from the South Side.
“The South Side Pitch finalists remind us of something that too many people underestimate: South Siders have innovative, entrepreneurial ideas about how to solve problems within their communities,” said Beth Kregor, director of the Institute for Justice Clinic on Entrepreneurship, which hosted the competition. “We’re proud that South Side Pitch highlights and elevates the voices of South Side business owners, who are creating much-needed job opportunities on Chicago’s South Side. With ongoing problems like drug abuse, gang violence and high unemployment schools, these opportunities can be the difference between life and death, success and failure, for so many South Siders.”