Ellis Island Tea Founder, 32, Has a Sweet New Reason to Smile -- Her $300,000 Win at Detroit Demo Day

June 15, 2019, 7:44 AM

An 11-year-old sweet tea business gets a sweet ingredient at the third annual Detroit Demo Days contest for local entrepreneurs.

Ellis Island Tea, founded in 2008 by Nailah Ellis-Brown, won $300,000 in equity investment Friday night at the third annual Detroit Demo Days, a four-hour event sponsored by Quicken Loans to support local entrepreneurs. She's among seven winners chosen by four judges at the Fillmore Theater downtown after 15 finalists each made 90-second pitches to present their companies’ successes and growth strategies.

Three other winners got $25,000 people's choice awards based on audience votes via a phone app. (All are listed below.)

Nailah Ellis-Brown, 32: "Mama, I made it!"
(Photo: Facebook)

Ellis-Brown, who's 32 and studied business administration at Howard University, makes, bottles and distributes a tropical hibiscus tea. The recipe, she says, comes from her great-grandfather, Cyril Byron, who came to America in the early 1900s from Jamaica and ran a catering business in Manhattan from 1940-60. Ellis-Brown inherited the tea recipe and and his entrepreneurial drive.

The company's production site is on Clay Street, across from the Russell Industrial Center on Detroit's near east side. It also makes an unsweetened version of the tea, added in 2012.

Its first retail outlet was Avalon International Breads (2009), followed by Westborn Markets and Whole Foods in two Oakland County cities (2012).

A huge leap came in fall 2017, when Sam's Club began stocking it in Michigan, Indiana and Ohio. The next May, the Detroit product gained shelf space at all of the chain's nearly 600 U.S. locations.

"Mama, I made it," the founder exulted on Facebook. The break came, her post noted, "after 10+ years of receiving no after no after no, questioning, being laughed at" and other hurdles.

Demo Days evaluators screened more than 500 applicants from Detroit, Hamtramck and Highland Park to pick the 15 finalists in three categories -- Start, Grow, Scale -- representing development stages (a recently introduced product or service; a business ready to expand; a locally successful venture able to serve national customers).

Below is who won what.



  • Ellis Island Tea: $300,000 equity investment
  • Functional Fluidics: ($75,000) Blood function diagnostics for sickle cell care and other bleeding or clotting disorders

Grow (top three get no-interest loans)

  • Louisiana Creole Gumbo: ($250,000) Cajun restaurant
  • Detroit Dough: ($200,000) Edible cookie dough -- which also gets $25,000 cash as a people's choice winner
  • Eastern Market Brewing Co.: ($150,000) Craft Brewery and taproom

Start (top three get cash grants)

  • Healthy Roots: ($100,000) A doll and storybook company focusing on diversity and empowering girls (plus the $25,000 audience award)
  • EnBiologics/Honey CureL ($75,000) Veterinary burn and wound care provider
  • Gus & Grey: ($50,000) Seller of handcrafted delights and jams

Preview article, Thursday:

Local entrepreneurs get rewards more meaningful than plaques, trophies or ribbons at a public event Friday night in the Fillmore downtown.

Seven small businesses, to be chosen from among 15 finalists, will share $1.2 million in grants, no-interest loans and investments from the Quicken Loans Community Fund.

The free event, which starts at 5 p.m. with a "pre-party" mixer and ends with music from an unnamed Grammy winner, is called Demo Day because each of the 15 emerging entrepreneurs who made the cut will have 90 seconds to describe its achievements and pitch a business plan to four judges. (A 38-second promotional video is below.) 

Three of last year's winners.


Contestants include Louisiana Creole Gumbo restaurant, Ellis Island Tea, Sister Pie bakery, Femology coworking space, Eastern Market Brewing, Narrow Way Cafe and the Detroit Body Garage gym. 

Entrants are split into three categories -- Start, Grow, Scale -- representing stages of development (a recently introduced product or service; a business ready to expand; a locally successful venture able to serve national customers). Prizes range from $50,000 to $300,000. In additioon, one business in each category will get a $25,000 people's choice award based on audience votes cast via an app.

Demo Day is open to for-profit companies based in Detroit, Highland Park or Hamtramck that already sell a product or service, and that have raised up to $1 million and have up to $2 million in annual revenue. (The startup category is for firms with less than $100,000 in 2018 revenue.) 

Evaluators screened more than 500 entires to select finalists.

How to attend: Register here.

The finalists

Scale category (One winner of $300,000 in equity-share investments; one $25,000 people's choice award)

  • CrowdFreak: Online platform connecting musicians to gigs
  • Ellis Island Tea: Hibiscus tea made from a family recipe 
  • Functional Fluidics: Blood function diagnostics for hospital and medical lab use

Grow category (Three loans of $250,000, $200,000 and $150,000; one $25,000 audience award)

  • Detroit Body Garage: A gym
  • Louisiana Creole Gumbo: A Cajun restaurant 
  • Narrow Way Cafe: A coffeeshop
  • Detroit Dough: A cookie dough creator 
  • Sister Pie: A seasonal baked goods shop and distributor
  • Eastern Market Brewing Co.: A craft brewery 

Start category (Three grants of $100,000, $75,000 and $50,000; one $25,000 audience award)

  • Healthy Roots: A doll and storybook company bringing diversity to the toy aisle 
  • Gus & Grey: A delights and jams business inspired by Michigan farms 
  • EnBiologics: A veterinary burn and wound care provider for pets
  • Pocketnest: A financial planning and fintech app for DIY financial planning
  • Femology: A business lounge and coworking space for women
  • Einstein by Design: A children’s STEAM activity center 

The judges

  • John Henry, an entrepreneur, partner of a diversity-focused venture capital firm in New York City and host of "Hustle" on Viceland
  • Suzanne Shank, CEO and co-founder of a 23-year-old investmnent bankingf and financial services firm
  • Jason White, chief marketing officer at a cannabis oil provider in Portland, Ore.
  • Tony Ambroza, chief brand officer at Carhartt

Quicken Loans Detroit Demo Day 2019 from Quicken Loans Detroit Demo Day on Vimeo.

Read more:  Opportunity Detroit

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