Sonya Grant of Hilton Head Island, owner of Gullah T’s N Tings, won the 2021 business pitch contest for Black Equity University. She is pictured with Billy Watterson, left, and Shana Berkeley, director of Corner to Corner. COURTESY BLACQUITY

Mariah Mervin began cheerleading in the seventh grade, and she has dreamed of running her own cheerleading gym ever since. At age 24, she has already accomplished that dream. In March 2021, she opened Prestige Elite Athletics, an all-star cheerleading gym on Hilton Head Island.

A local initiative has helped Mervin solidify her business plan and look forward to a successful career. This past Spring, the Hilton Head native attended the Black Equity University, a 12-week training program that teaches Black entrepreneurs the basics of owning and growing a business.

The program is organized by BlacQuity, a diverse group of Lowcountry business and community leaders who have made it their mission to elevate, empower and promote small Black-owned businesses.

Students begin the course by giving pitches similar to what entrepreneurs do on the TV show “Shark Tank.” Over the course of the program, they refine their pitches, and the class culminates with a graduation ceremony, where each student gives a final pitch and receives a certificate.

“This really helped me move forward in my business journey,” Mervin said. The program taught Mervin how to market her business and helped her with the budgeting aspect. She can’t say enough about her teacher, BlacQuity executive director Gwen Chambers, who continues to mentor her today.

For now, Mervin rents space from Coastal Gymnastics of Hilton Head, but she hopes to soon have a building of her own. She also wants to attract more athletes and is looking forward to partnering with the Boys & Girls Club of Hilton Head Island to offer tumbling classes to members.

Mervin is just one of many Black business owners who have benefited from Black Equity University. Bluffton Gullah native, Town Council member and president of the Bluffton MLK Observance Committee Bridgette Frazier was part of the first cohort of the program.

Frazier is also the owner of Chef B’s Eatz and one of the founders of BlacQuity.

At a Juneteenth celebration in 2020 at Eagles Field in Bluffton, Frazier met a successful entrepreneur named Billy Watterson, CEO of Watterson Brands and co-founder of Burnt Church Distillery. 

The two began talking about the economic disparity and inequity in the local Black community. He mentioned that he wanted to support Black-owned businesses, but he couldn’t even find a listing of those businesses.

Frazier told Watterson that the Bluffton MLK Observance Committee had been working on a Black-owned business directory. That directory can now be found on BlacQuity’s website.

After spending time listening and discussing the issues with Frazier and others on the committee, Watterson joined forces with them to form BlacQuity in 2020.

“Elevating and amplifying Black businesses is a great benefit to the community at large,” Frazier said. “Not only does it allow a particular community to be able to recycle dollars … back into their own community, but it helps with the sustainability of an entire culture.”

In addition to educating entrepreneurs and promoting their businesses, Watterson and BlacQuity created the Lowcountry Legacy Fund through the Community Foundation of the Lowcountry. 

The purpose of the fund is to improve infrastructure, educational opportunities and equity in the Black community. Burnt Church Distillery gives a portion of its sales to this fund.

Much more is on the horizon for BlacQuity success stories, including Ma Daisy’s, named after Frazier’s grandmother. Located at the site of the former Pepper’s Porch, Ma Daisy’s will house Frazier’s restaurant, a bakery, an open-air market and the first Gullah cultural heritage center in Bluffton. 

Patrons will be immersed in Gullah culture, get to hear the stories of Black culture and the Gullah people, and even learn how to make sweetgrass baskets. Above the space will be affordable housing for supervisory staff.

“What I love about what BlacQuity is all about is breaking down those barriers but not doing it solo,” Watterson said. “This is an all-of-us opportunity to fix and make these investments because it can’t happen alone – in the Black community or in the white community. … People talk about wanting change to happen and wanting to be a part of change. Well, this is the real deal, and it’s more beautiful when we’re all engaged and working on it together.”

One of the best ways to support BlacQuity’s efforts is to patronize Black-owned businesses. Other ways to support the cause include telling others about those businesses, donating to BlacQuity, investing in Black-owned businesses and becoming a mentor with the university. 

To receive updates on the university’s next class, learn more about BlacQuity or to get involved, visit

Amy Coyne Bredeson of Bluffton is a freelance writer, a mother of two and a volunteer with the Tuberous Sclerosis Alliance.