I was exposed to racial and gender discrimination as a child growing up in Arkansas, but it wasn’t until I returned home after a decade in New York and Boston pursuing my post-secondary education that I realized that nothing has really changed in the South, regarding equality.
We, for the most part, live in segregated neighborhoods, go to segregated schools, attend segregated churches, shop at segregated grocery stores and work in segregated businesses. Race is not a “thing of the past;” it permeates every aspect of our society, and unfortunately, not as a beautiful celebration of diversity, but often as a catalyst for bias, whether conscious or unconscious.
Women, too, despite social advancements over the years, are still treated differently. That’s what leads to professional women hiding the fact that they have children when they’re working mothers, dressing “like men” to detract attention from themselves or staying silent when discrimination at work takes place.
All of the bias and discrimination, though, has got to stop. We need to make a change, and I believe it could start with entrepreneurship.
Entrepreneurship Could Be the Change We Need
When women and people of color are in roles of leadership, gender and racial inequities are not as persistent in those companies as in companies where white men dominate the leadership ranks. Making it to the top in a large corporate structure has mostly failed for minority candidates, including women, though—the percentage of female CEOs in the Fortune 500 dropped to 4% this year, down from a paltry 4.2% last year. A mere 5 of the Fortune 500 CEOs are African-American—yes, just a dismal 1%.
Entrepreneurship, then, is another option. If women and people of color can muster up the strength and creativity to found companies, drudging away in a cubicle to climb the corporate ladder will not be seen as the only option.
We have a representation problem, though. Women and minorities do not get funded! And if they don’t get funded, there’s very little chance of survival.
Only 7% of all venture capital-backed startups are women-led, and a whopping 87% of venture capital funding goes to Caucasian entrepreneurs — of all the firms that hold venture capital equity, 87% have Caucasian founders, 12% are Asian-owned firms, and a tiny 1% of firms are led by African-American founders. Latino-owned businesses are so rare they don’t make a blip on the charts. What’s it like to be a black female founder, though? I can’t even imagine, when only 0.2% of black female founders have ever raised money, and when they do raise, it’s at numbers far off-balanced from white males, the most funded group. On average, black female founders raise $36,000 in venture capital, while white males raise $1.3 million. No wonder we don’t see women or minorities at the top — they can’t even make it up the first rung.
Let’s Connect the Underrepresented to their Local Entrepreneurial Ecosystems
In Little Rock, we’re trying to build a model for entrepreneurship diversity and inclusion, and we call it the Start Here Initiative. I was pulled in a few months ago as a steering committee member by founder Steve Rice, who works with entrepreneurs every day in his role at the Venture Center, a technology innovation center in downtown Little Rock. Our vision is to improve the success of women and minority entrepreneurs in raising capital. We seek to fulfill that vision by engaging women and minority entrepreneurs and increasing their access to information, resources and training.
In short, you don’t see many women or people of color in the central entrepreneurial hubs in Little Rock. These spaces are mostly utilized by men, typically Caucasian men. If you do see women, they’re often white as well, like myself. We have a representation problem in the entrepreneurial ecosystem.
This past Saturday, though, at Start Here Little Rock’s first event we engaged more than 100 aspiring and current entrepreneurs, women and minorities looking to start or grow their businesses. The event was a show-and-tell-inspired gathering, in which successful minority and women entrepreneurs shared their advice and stories, and representatives from entrepreneurial support organizations in the community shared their programming information and networked with attendees for further information on how to take advantage of the resources available to them.
It was exceptional to see the morning entrepreneurs panel, in which we heard founding stories from eight successful founders who looked like people in the audience! A colleague of mine leaned over to me at the start of the panel and said, “For a second, I was confused, because I forgot this was a diversity-focused event. I was thinking, ‘Wait! Who’s representing the ‘white male perspective’?!’” We both chuckled, because it’s true — we’re used to tokenism when it comes to diversity. A panel that’s missing a woman or lacking non-white representation seems normal; but a panel missing a white male just seems unfathomable, to the point of confusion!
A Call to Action
Our communities cannot continue to operate on segregation, division and exclusivity of spaces and resources. The South has continually reinvented itself, from slavery to agriculture to manufacturing, to where we are now: Moving into the information age. But we also need to reinvent how we treat each other.
If we want to see diversity and inclusion, we need to change the face of entrepreneurship. Underrepresented groups need to start seeing themselves in local leadership, which means we need to support women and people of color in their ambitions. There are resources available that most aspiring minority and women entrepreneurs do not know exist.
This newly found information is the start of something important and necessary. On Twitter, one attendee, Quinyatta Mumford, conference chair for the Arkansas Public Health Association and president-elect of the Arkansas Board of Health Representatives, tweeted when she arrived at Start Here Little Rock that she was “here and ready to take in the information” for the “next step in this journey: entrepreneurship.” When she left, she signed out in great motivation:
If you are an entrepreneur who is looking to reignite your passion for your vision #STARTHERELR. I walked away today with a renewed hope.
— Q. Mumford (@IamSheandSheIs) August 27, 2016
That is the energy and drive we want to see in our community. I can’t wait to see what Ms. Mumford and other attendees do next from this first step.
The onus, though, is not only on underrepresented entrepreneurs to step up. I challenge every entrepreneur support organization out there to step up and proactively communicate with underrepresented communities. We had more than 300 registrants for our event, with very little promotion over a two-week period. The interest is there, but we need to educate and support each other, or else, we all stay disconnected and nothing changes.
Furthermore, it doesn’t end with organized support. If you’re an entrepreneur or startup advisor, make an effort to mentor young leaders with potential.
Whatever action you feel you can take, I implore you to take it. With every action, we take a step towards greater equality for all.
Feature image courtesy of Sakib Iqbal