Contributed photography by Chatt Pix / Members of the Chattanooga Business Elite board at the 2021 Black Excellence Awards.

Shay McCowan's desire to create a networking organization for Black business owners was inspired by her mother, an entrepreneur who launched a successful catering company after a corporate layoff.

"Around 2018, I definitely was seeing that I wanted to provide a platform for Black business owners to really celebrate their accomplishments and be able to give them a place to celebrate and inspire one another," she says.

McCowan, who graduated from Rhea County High School and moved to Chattanooga in 1998 to attend the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, started talking about her idea with friends and learned that someone else was working on a very similar idea.

"I found out Kevin Love was talking about the same thing, and he was like, 'Let's do it together,'" McCowan says.

Chattanooga Business Elite

* Online:

* Cost: Businesses can register on the Chattanooga Business Elite website for free. Some promotional pages and special events have associated fees.

* Leadership: Shay McCowan is president and founder of the group, while Kevin Love is vice president. The board of directors has 12 members.

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Love, who moved to Chattanooga from Memphis to attend UTC, was all in to build a community for Black business owners, he says. He has worked for Tech Town, a youth-oriented technology and entrepreneurial learning center, and now works for the Enterprise Center, a non-profit organization with a mission of establishing Chattanooga as a hub of innovation.

Chattanooga Business Elite now has an active board of directors and hosts events including the annual Chattanooga Black Excellence Awards, which launched in February 2020 and went virtual via a pre-recorded show for its most recent event in February 2021.

"I have a background in recording, so it was just a no-brainer," Love says. "We've got a creative board, and everyone was on board for it."

The group fielded more than 200 nominations in 60 categories, and the YouTube event has been viewed about 8,000 times.

One of the most important things the group does is include young people in its events and meetings, including her own nieces, nephews and their friends, McCowan says.

"The main focus was to inspire kids," she says. "They need to see business owners — they don't just need to see how TV portrays them."

Chattanooga Business Elite put a hold on most of its networking and social events in 2020, but recently launched a newsletter and is looking forward to growing its reach in 2021, Love says.

"The idea is to make it a membership organization that's open to the public," he says.

Top winners of the 2021 Chattanooga Black Excellence Awards

* CBE Award: Genia Church

* Chris Ramsey Humanitarian Award: Sharon Kelly

* TVFCU Legend Award: John P. Franklin Funeral Home

See the full list of winners at

Watch the 2021 CBE Black Excellence Awards at