Career Insight: Hope for Young Black Entrepreneurs

by Diana Drake

Black economic history is an important theme to consider during Black History Month. The wealth gap (economic inequality between different races and populations), joblessness, bank lending – in all these economic areas and more, “African Americans have long been on the losing end of this trend,” former Federal Reserve Chairwoman Janet Yellen recently pointed out.

The Leading Diversity@Wharton lecture held virtually this week addressed another economic area of disparity: the struggles faced by Black entrepreneurs who often don’t have the same opportunities as their white counterparts when it comes to securing funding for their businesses and growing beyond the start-up phase.

Lecture host Stephanie Creary, an identity and diversity scholar and assistant professor of management at Wharton, welcomed guests Melissa Bradley, managing partner of 1863 Ventures, a company that bridges entrepreneurship and racial equity to support “New Majority” entrepreneurs; and Frederik Groce, partner at Storm Ventures venture capital and co-founder of BLCK VC. They talked about their approaches to diversity, equity and inclusion in the venture funding and business start-up worlds.

The challenges within this entrepreneurship and funding ecosystem are great — from decision-makers who have biases and judge people based on harmful stereotypes, to outright discrimination against entrepreneurs of color. The Wharton Global Youth Program’s new Explore Business mini-sites provide a detailed look into the impact of systemic racism on business and society. In Race and the Entrepreneur, we meet Black founder and successful entrepreneur Chris Bennett, CEO of Wonderschool, who says, “The color of your skin plays a big role in the types of experiences you have from an economic standpoint.”

We encourage all students to dive into our Explore Business pages to take a deeper look at the challenges Black entrepreneurs face because of unjust practices that limit their ability to prosper, and how the venture capital community that provides funding is working toward change.

“You find a peer group so you can actually see what amazing work you’re doing, but also have a safe way to say I totally screwed up, can somebody help me?” — Melissa Bradley, 1863 Ventures

In the meantime, this week’s diversity lecture provided some practical insight on the topic.

Bradley, Groce and Ethan Mollick, a Wharton associate professor of management who specializes in entrepreneurship and who joined Dr. Creary for the lecture, offered sound advice for the next generation of Black and women entrepreneurs who want to break into an industry that has historically held them back. Here are their top 5 tips:

  1. Venture capitalists want to meet you. “There’s a greater understanding of these problems and challenges across the industry than there has ever been,” noted Groce. “What that means is that if you’re an entrepreneur, a female founder, a Black founder, a LatinX founder, it doesn’t matter, you have more funds who are tuned into these challenges and willing to lend [you money] and take the time and meet… People are waiting to be blown away, and it’s your job to do it… That means practicing, talking to mentors, and not being afraid to ask what you might perceive as dumb questions, because there are no dumb questions.”
  1. Get comfortable being uncomfortable. “Investing and being an entrepreneur is imperfect. If you are a perfectionist, then this is definitely not your path. The role of imperfection allows people to fall and get back up and fail forward and still have an opportunity,” said Bradley.
  1. If you want to be a change agent in the entrepreneurial space, default to action. “You can do way more than you think you can do,” suggested Groce. “Consistent effort actually moves mountains. It’s shocking. We often underestimate the risk-reward of doing action, and we often just sit and think someone else must be doing it….If I’ve learned anything with BLCK VC and the work so many of us have done, we realized we could be the change agents ourselves as long as we worked together.”
  1. Once you get past the barriers, there is real willingness to change. “A lot of people are trying to figure out how to be allies and they really do want to fund more Black and female founders,” said Mollick. “If you can get through and get the warm introductions that these communities are making, I’ve been hearing very good things from my [entrepreneurship] students.”
  1. Find a community where you feel safe. “The biggest thing is to find a peer group so that you are not comparing yourself with everything that’s out there,” said Bradley. “You find a peer group so you can actually see what amazing work you’re doing, but also have a safe way to say I totally screwed up, can somebody help me? Don’t let the external standards define your greatness. Let’s be clear: entrepreneurship is a sport and one of the hardest sports out there. It’s also a team sport, and you need those folks around you.”

Related Links

Conversation Starters

Which piece of advice mentioned in the article resonates most strongly with you? Why is it important for everyone — regardless of race — to understand the challenges faced by Black entrepreneurs?

Are you a young entrepreneur of color who has faced stereotypes? Share your story in the Comment section of this article.

While it’s not mentioned in the article, Melissa Bradley led up to her “peer group” advice by saying that many young Black entrepreneurs are suffering from “Imposter Syndrome” right now. What do you think Imposter Syndrome is and why is it so prevalent? Have you felt this way before? If you need help with the concept, check out the Related Links tab with this article.

3 comments on “Career Insight: Hope for Young Black Entrepreneurs

  1. Upon reflecting on this message, I’m reminded of a question first posed to me during my school’s Martin Luther King Jr. Programming: How does one succeed in spaces not originally designed for them? In this presentation of how to derive hope from systematically racist and sexist industries, I think that Leading Diversity@Wharton perfectly addresses these unjust institutions by obstructing the blatant prejudice that they employ, ultimately encouraging entrepreneurs and startups to retain their hunger for success. Through their targeted message towards entrepreneurs of color and most notably black entrepreneurs, the guest panel provides insight on the wide range of hardships that disproportionately impacts entrepreneurs of color. While it may seem easier to ignore these obvious barriers and blindly rush forward, it’s also important for us as a community to take a step back and acknowledge the notable injustices that affect various communities. However, continuously encouraging individuals of color to push forward and get past roadblocks undercovers an unshockingly prevalent reality—there are virtually no spaces originally built for people of color to succeed. No matter the industry, no matter the situation, no matter the pitch, people of color will always be faced with “limit[s] on their ability to prosper.”

    While the very essence of this message is dually sad and discouraging, Leading Diversity@Wharton points out each of our own roles in addressing these pervasive issues. When we are able to recognize and call out these biases, we are simultaneously better equipped to inspire and create change. While these spaces may not have been originally designed for us, there is no reason we can’t mold them to fit us and our voices.

    • Hi Jason,

      Firstly, I want to say that I enjoyed reading your comment on this article. I wholeheartedly agree with you that “it’s also important for us as a community to take a step back and acknowledge the notable injustices that affect various communities”.

      Like you, I believe the first step that we must take to abolish discrimination in any situation is acknowleding the problem. Opening our eyes to the discrimination of entrepreneurs of color will allow people of the business world to recognize the depth of this issue, thus allowing them to become more conscious of their actions. If more and more people support the act of abolishing discrimination in the business world through the simple act of consciousness, it will not only make it harder for certain individuals to discriminate against people of color but may also help people of color gain favorable perceptions by others in their entrepreneurial careers. This could help entrepreneurs of color in instances such as “securing funding for their businesses and growing beyond the start-up phase” as the article mentions.

      The plausibility of this idea to gain favorable perception through consciousness can be supported by evidence from our world today; one being the emphasis many universities put on the diversity of their student population. Many universities take pride in their diverse community, including UPenn.

      On their website, UPenn states that “understanding and appreciating diversity is one of Penn’s most important priorities”, emphasizing and taking pride in their diverse community. They also state statistics such as “54% of the Class of 2024 identify as Black, Hispanic, Asian, or Native American” to clearly prove the extent of their diversity. As students, these statistics look appealing and pull us towards UPenn in a positive manner. Not only UPenn, but other globally recognized schools such as Harvard or Princeton all have a separate ‘Diversity’ tab on their homepage that allows viewers to recognize the schools as racially diverse. If we were to image universities as businesses, we could say this is a way to attract customers through a positive brand/corporate image.

      In other words, having a diverse community became a trait to be proud of, leading universities to want to bring in a more diverse set of students from different backgrounds. Societies and students are not only more appreciative and supportive of such universities but also hold a higher level of respect for them, potentially even judging their willingness to attend the school based on such traits. This is frankly the reason why so many prestigious universities work to give students from diverse ethnic backgrounds opportunities to attend their school, and go on to showcase the extent of their diversity on their school pages.

      Now going back to my point about young entrepreneurs of color, if we are able to acknowledge this existence of discrimination in the business world against certain races, this new consciousness may have the same effect in the business world as it had for other institutions like schools as mentioned above, bringing the world one step closer to equality. Creating a business world where being an entrepreneur of color doesn’t deter you from accessing opportunities but rather provides you a certain level of respect could help so many young entrepreneurs reach for success. Like you said, “while these spaces may not have been originally designed for us, there is no reason we can’t mold them to fit us and our voices”.

      Taking small steps – even as simple as just being aware – can help towards completely eradicating discrimination against people of color in the business world. Although it may seem ineffective in the short run, one by one, if the masses are able to recognize such inequalities, they would naturally start to monitor the people and the part of the business world they are in. This would change one part. Then another. Then another. Then another. Until the entire business world has changed for the better.

      Thank you so much again for your comment Jason.

    • Your observations deliciously peels back the layers of institutions of prejudice in business to reduce it to the bare bones of what ‘success’ means to people of color: success. The meaning does not change: their ventures must net the same profit, touch the hearts of the same customers, and yet their struggles are abysmally magnified, simply by adding the variable of race. Jason, you really hit the nail on the head with this one! The way you suavely expanded the scope of the original article– “Hope for Black Entrepreneurs”– to recognize how its message applies to all oppressed entrepreneurs, regardless of sex, race, color, makes the original article all the more personal to so many like myself.

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