Nailah Ellis-Brown had 90 seconds to convince five judges that she should be the winner of the 2019 Quicken Loans Detroit Demo Day. The Detroit native made every second count, going home as the $300,000 investment winner in the Scale category Friday night at the Fillmore Theatre. Her popular Ellis Island Tea is available in stores around the country, including Sam’s Club, Whole Foods, and Meijer already, but Ellis-Brown has bigger aspirations for her family recipe of Jamaican Sweet Tea.
“I’ve gotten a lot of accolades in Detroit and I keep getting trophies, but trophies don’t pay my bills,” said Ellis-Brown, who is a graduate of Renaissance High School. “This money will give us a real opportunity to go national with our brand.”
Fifteen finalists were chosen out of hundreds of impressive applications received, to pitch their businesses on stage at Detroit Demo Day. Seven of the metro Detroit entrepreneurs received a share of the $1.2 million in funding from Quicken Loans. The finalists’ pitches were judged, and the winners decided, by nationally-acclaimed entrepreneurs from across the country.
Ellis-Brown impressed the judges during her pitch, with help from the crowd. Competing in the Scale category, the judges wanted to see that Ellis Island Tea could continue its success and thrive beyond the Michigan market. Ellis-Brown felt it could, announcing that Sam’s Club offered her a national long-term distribution contract. In order to do that, Ellis-Brown will need automated equipment and effective marketing, which is what she will use the money for.
“Getting money for marketing has been the hardest and I’ve been at this for 12 years,” said Ellis-Brown. “So, I’m going to pour some of the money into marketing and into better equipment. We need a label machine. Right now, we hand label everything and with a machine, we will cut production by two hours and the labels will be more consistent. This interest-free loan will finally allow us to finance our marketing department and finally take us to the next level.”
In the Grow category, Detroit Dough took home second place, winning a $200,000 investment. The Detroit-based cookie dough maker was founded in 2017 by co-founders Autumn Kyles, and siblings Victoria and Daniel A. Washington. Kyles took the stage during the 90-second pitch, showcasing Detroit Dough’s accolades, including landing sales contracts with MJR Theaters, Emagine Entertainment, the Michigan Science Center, and Michigan Stadium. Detroit Dough now has its eyes set on taking their product nationally.
“I think we were chosen because of our story,” said Kyles, an alumna of Hampton. “We’ve grown our company really fast, we’ve shown that we can market, and we’ve been successful thus far. In my pitch, I showed them that there is growth potential for Detroit Dough and I am really glad that we were chosen for this investment.”
Detroit Dough also won the $25,000 People’s Choice award, as voted by the audience. It also donates five percent of its gross revenue back to its neighborhood in Detroit, Northwest-Goldberg.
This year, attendees voted for three People’s Choice award recipients. A Quicken Loans Demo Day app was made available for the audience to either swipe left if they were not feeling the company or swipe right if they were. The most swipes in their favor in their particular category got an additional grant of $25,000.
“We don’t want the audience to just come and watch and celebrate,” said James Chapman, who manages entrepreneur initiatives including Detroit Demo Day for Rock Ventures. “We want them to get in on the action, because these are going to be businesses that are in their neighborhood, they know who the founders are, and we want to get the audience in on the act. It almost makes them a mini investor.”
To end the festivities, rapper and entrepreneur T.I. took the stage performing many of his hits, including “Motivation”, Whatever You Like”, “24’s” and others.
START category winners:
$100,000: Healthy Roots
$75,000: Honey Cure
$50,000: Gus & Grey
$25,000 People’s Choice Award: Healthy Roots
GROW category winners:
$250,000: Louisiana Creole Gumbo
$200,000: Detroit Dough
$150,000: Eastern Market Brewing Company
$25,000 People’s Choice Award: Detroit Dough
SCALE category winner:
$300,000: Ellis Island Tea
$25,000 People’s Choice Award: Functional Fluidics
This article originally appeared in the Michigan Chronicle.