According to the Federal Reserve, Black entrepreneurs are about half as likely to secure full financing as white-owned businesses.

Ashley La Russa and her organization, Blax Friday, is trying to change that.

La Russa started Pitch Black in 2020 to help Tucson’s Black-owned businesses weather the storm of the pandemic. She never turned back.

Through the program, small business owners and entrepreneurs pitch their business plans to a panel of judges to win $5,000 in prize money to help grow and scale their businesses. Runners-up can also earn $1,000 towards their business.

Pitch Black came in response to La Russas experiences working with Black-owned small businesses and learning about their financial challenges.

In 2020, one of the main challenges was finding capital for these businesses, La Russa says. Some of the traditional ways and routes of finding capital, be it a loan, going through a bank, talking to family members, we just werent able to really be able to find the funds that were needed for these businesses.

This led to the original launch of Pitch Black in 2020, which was conducted online due to pandemic restrictions, with the winning business getting $500. In 2021, Pitch Black partnered with Hustle PHX, an Arizona-based organization that works with startups and entrepreneurs. They expanded the competition to national businesses and the top pitch received $1,000.

While Pitch Black was forced to skip 2022 and 2023 due to fundraising shortages, the competition is back, with bigger prizes than ever.

This year, the organization received a grant from Groundswell Capital, which unlocked the $5,000 prize for the first-place finalist. Just as important as the money itself, it comes with no strings attached, compared to bank and venture capital funding, which can come with sometimes burdensome restrictions and issued in installments.

La Russa says that this is by design.

We were really able to reach out to business owners and find that the need for funds needs to be immediate, needs to be in a lump sum and usually non-restricted.

Along with Groundswell, the event received help and assistance from Rio Nuevo, Local First AZ, United Way of Arizona, the State of Black Arizona and Growth Partners AZ.

La Russa advises those looking to pitch to find a unique solution to a community-centered problem. Selection criteria include a business approach to problem solving, focus and clarity on how the problem is being addressed, along with the metrics used to assess long-term outcomes.

Applicants must be based in Tucson, be a sole proprietor or have less than five employees and in operation for less than ten years, and identify as Black, Pan-African, Moorish American, African-American and/or of the African diaspora.

Submissions to Pitch Black are currently open and close on April 12. Those interested in applying can do so on the Pitch Black website.

Judges will choose finalists on April 22. The Pitch Black event will be held May 15 at the Leo Rich Theater, located downtown beside the Tucson Convention Center.