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Champaign business incubator provides mentorship through chess

Markel Corbin, 15 (pictured), plays Business Elevator chess coach on Tuesday, Sept. 20, 2022. He says he got excited about chess when he saw relatives using chess strategy to develop and achieve their ambitions.

CHAMPAIGN – A business incubator focused on disadvantaged neighborhoods in Champaign is expanding its chess program.

The classes started with a handful of teenagers about six weeks ago. Since then, adults have become so interested that the nonprofit, Business Elevator, is planning to start a separate, adult class.

The chess coach, Eduardo Carrillo, Jr, uses the game to teach his students about business skills and planning for their future.

“If we’re playing chess, and you control these four squares on your right side of the board, I will not try to open up a business where your business is already stationary and set,” Carrillo explains.

“If we should compete, I will try to gain more land than you. On a chessboard, it will be more squares.”

Business Elevator focuses on growing small businesses owned by people of color, with the goal of reducing wealth inequality.

The Business Elevator chess classes are free to participants, thanks to Victory Over Violence donations from the United Way, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Busey Bank, Carle Health and others.

Carrillo found chess while incarcerated

Business Elevator chess coach Eduardo Carrillo, Jr plays Khayriyah Mitchell. Emily Hays/Illinois Public Media

Carrillo learned his method of teaching chess and life skills simultaneously from his own mentor.

At the time, Carrillo was incarcerated, and an older inmate asked to play chess together. Carrillo responded that he didn’t know how to play chess.

“He said, ‘I just want to talk to you,’” Carrillo says.

So Carrillo and the older man started talking about life, and Carrillo gradually realized that he was learning how to play and develop his strategy.

“I want to thank this individual, because he inspired me to get my GED, my safety and sanitation degree, and my electronics certification — all through conversation and teaching me chess,” Carrillo says.

Carrillo was released from prison this January after being incarcerated for over 20 years. Although he had plans to open his own food truck, the plans fell through. Until learning about Business Elevator, he was struggling to find a job and living on Social Security and food stamps.

“You don’t know how scary the world is when you come home after being gone for so long. But then for people to embrace you, accept you, nurture you…” Carrillo says.

Business Elevator co-founder Mark Pelmore (center) started the chess program to give young people from disadvantaged neighborhoods a safe place to be after school. Emily Hays/Illinois Public Media

After Carrillo volunteered as a chess coach at Business Elevator for two weeks, the nonprofit hired him as chess coach, mentor and outreach specialist.

Carrillo currently teaches chess once a week to children aged 10 to 17. He also sets up boards at parks during public events, like the city’s Monday pop-up park on Hedge Road.

Carrillo says Business Elevator will launch the weekly adult class in about two weeks. 

Both adults and children can sign up by emailing mepelmore@gmail.com. 

Updated at 4 p.m. on Sept. 21, 2022. 

Emily Hays is a reporter for Illinois Public Media. Follow her on Twitter @amihatt.

Picture of Emily Hays

Emily Hays

Emily Hays started at WILL in October 2021 after three-plus years in local newsrooms in Virginia and Connecticut. She has won state awards for her housing coverage at Charlottesville Tomorrow and her education reporting at the New Haven Independent. Emily graduated from Yale University where she majored in History and South Asian Studies.

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