That Black entrepreneurs haven’t had the same access to capital and funding as others should not be news, but it’s the reality of the disparity that fewer may really grasp — and the gap remains wide despite the influx of cash for creatives of color in the post-George Floyd era.
“Even though we’ve had all of these amazing commitments from these companies post-George Floyd, they just have not manifested,” said Melissa Bradley, founder and managing director of 1863 Ventures, a nonprofit that delivers business development programs designed to bridge the gap between entrepreneurship and equality. “Many didn’t manifest because it was a PR stunt, others on the other side did not manifest because they did not understand the infrastructure upon which they were trying to invest.”
Though entrepreneurship has been a key tool for economic advancement among the Black community, as Bradley put it, “unfortunately it has always been systematically destroyed.” A 2019 Survey of Consumer Finances found the typical white family has eight times the wealth of the typical Black family, and things may not have varied greatly since then, particularly with the pandemic’s more adverse impact on communities of color and the businesses they own.
Now a new group is hoping to do its part, however small, to help right that.
Fiverr, a freelance services marketplace for business, in partnership with 1863 Ventures and business strategy firm Maestra, on Wednesday unveiled an inaugural Future Collective — a business accelerator fellowship for Black entrepreneurs.
Five businesses have been selected to receive $24,000 each in funding, plus training and mentorship, and the aim among the cohort investing in them is to chip away at the racial wealth gap by paving the way for entrepreneurship.
“For the Black community, entrepreneurship offers a clear path to decreasing the wealth divide,” said Maestra cofounder Stacie Gillian. “When we directly compare the earning power of Black and white business owners, we know that through entrepreneurship we can decrease this gap significantly.”
More specifically, Bradley said, “If Black businesses reached economic parity with non-Black businesses, their revenues would increase by about $5.9 trillion and create more than 19 million more jobs.”
The first step is for more to admit the racial wealth gap is a real problem.
“When I talk about entrepreneurship, when I talk about the new majority [people of color], it’s just not race for me, this is actually the ultimate viability of this country, that you’re about to have a majority population historically marginalized that does not have access to capital and wealth and that’s how you want to call us a superpower? It just doesn’t make sense,” Bradley said. “There [needs to be] an acknowledgment, then reimagining and restructuring the systems where there are barriers….It’s not just…throwing money but [considering] what is the institutional friction that I need to reduce so that these entrepreneurs can be successful within my community and not just give them money and hope they’re going to be successful somewhere else?”
So what’s different about this new fellowship from others that have been “throwing money” at the issue since summer 2020?
According to Gillian, it’s thoughtfulness.
“It’s not so much about controlling what the person does with the funds as more so understanding what’s needed for these organizations that will really help them build and sustain. So, I think that’s the foundation layer of why this is exciting to me and to us,” she said. “An organization like Fiverr, the individuals internally really care about the people that they’re interfacing with….They come from a landscape and an ethos as an owned company where they really understand what it is to sort of fight your way up and need the support and guidance and they want to mentor and help over a sustainable period of time.”
Beyond the funding, fellowship recipients — which include Appdrop (software for creating mobile apps without writing code); Budget Collector (AI-powered art adviser); De L’or Cakery (cake catering); Hey Girl Hey (a social bonding game for Black women), and luxury shoe brand Keeyahri — will be placed in an accelerator program with monthly cohort sessions and regular coaching. Fellows will also receive guidance from Fiverr’s senior management team as well as access to its platform, plus the ability to join 1863 Ventures’ weekly entrepreneur webinar sessions.
For Keeyahri founder and artistic director Keya Martin, the fellowship funding and access could not have come at a better time.
“Building a luxury brand…it’s really challenging,” she said. “I’m really interested to gain as much knowledge as I can.”
What the brand — known for its statement architectural heels — has already gained is attention. And a loyal following. Martin recently designed a new boot for Beyoncé in partnership with the star’s go-to stylist Zerina Akers. The challenge, as is most often the case, is scale.
“Customers are eager to purchase this product. I have a preorder model right now so I need inventory because I can’t keep up with the demand, so raising funds will definitely help me expand the brand,” said Martin, who hopes to begin a funding round early next year. “I just launched in Nordstrom, other retailers have reached out, so just to expand and create this global brand I need the funds to do that.”
The designer is working on new styles for spring (set to debut in February), including a lower heel version of its spiral-heeled bestseller, “Sarah,” in answer to pandemic demands for more everyday options.
If the fellowship’s aim is to empower entrepreneurs, Keeyahri’s aim is to empower women.
“I dealt with insecurities and low self-esteem, and once I received my samples back and I would wear it to networking events and tradeshows, the feeling that I get — even wearing it now — I feel like I’m on another level, I feel like a boss, I feel a sense of elevation. My confidence level increases when I wear my shoes and that’s just the feeling that I want other women to feel.”
Admittedly, the fellowship award amount, according to Gillian, is “sort of large, also quite small in the landscape of what you can get from a big organization,” so recipients were selected based on “where that will be most impactful, who knows how to utilize those dollars.” The aim going forward is to grow both the cohorts and the investments they get access to.