My involvement with Startup Southerner has exposed me to a lot of people, experiences and information within the entrepreneurial community all across the South. In that time I have concluded that startup culture is just that—a different culture from other business pursuits, irrespective of the industry or field. A fundamental belief in this space is that anyone can start a business, with a good idea and enough hard work. I hear some variation of those themes uttered repeatedly at talks and events.
Here’s the thing: Everyone can’t start a company, at least not yet.
Starting a company entails numerous risks for anyone. For example, you will likely work for some time (often a long time) with little or no consistent income. You may lose advancement opportunities that affect your career position later if you want to get a job working for someone else. Network-building will become a part of your DNA whether you like it or not. This is to say nothing of the tremendous time commitment—if I think about the people I know who work the most hours, almost all of them are entrepreneurs. Moreover, this is just the beginning. Success brings a whole new set of challenges, like funding, hiring, etc.
Can we who are familiar with those risks and sacrifices say honestly that we believe it is all just a matter of hard work? If we take time to think about it, do we believe that the stakes are even remotely the same for the young white man graduating college and the single parent, the woman, the person of color? What about background? Certainly it is hard to quantify, but what are the effects of having successful parents, of getting into top-tier schools? Trying to identify these differences is where inclusivity goes beyond acceptance and into something messier and harder to fix. But that is where real progress comes from.
If we are simply telling our fellow would-be founders to “Go for it!”’ without being candid about the financial risk and the time demands, then we are only repeating an empty mantra, and ultimately setting them up for failure. Further, if we genuinely believe in entrepreneurship as a vehicle to greater personal success, then we have an additional responsibility to help narrow the gaps that society and circumstance create all too often for smart, hard-working would-be founders.
When we fail to acknowledge the fundamental inequalities both within the entrepreneurial ecosystem and larger society, then we are instead (whether we mean to or not) blaming the individual—whether for a lack of courage, or a lack of hustle. This is why it is so important that we acknowledge the privileges (or lack thereof) which factor into startup success, so that we recognize that some people will fail, or never start, because of circumstances that have nothing to do with the quality of their ideas or their drive to realize them.
Inclusivity is a core value here at Startup Southerner, and one that I personally believe in as well. I know from meeting and talking to our supporters that it is for a lot of you, too. So I challenge you to be aware of all the help you received in starting and sustaining your entrepreneurial journey. Not just direct financial support, but things you might have taken for granted—like a spouse who makes enough to cover the mortgage, or parents who kept you on their insurance while you hustled and bootstrapped. Consider intangibles, too, like the jump-start your network got by going to graduate school (because you could afford to), or the advice your family member gave which became a touchstone.
Because here is the thing: Someone is going to ask you for advice, for lessons learned, for mentorship. If you acknowledge those pieces then you can go beyond the easy advice to actually identify the missing building blocks, and start plugging in resources. You cannot merely encourage a person to become an entrepreneur, you can empower them to be successful at it. Cheerleading is great, but helping someone find pre-seed money, or that first customer, or even affordable day care, that can make a startup happen, and change many lives—including your own.
We all have a responsibility to steer our unique and shared startup culture. Let’s take that seriously and make sure we are going beyond the slogans and helping everyone have opportunity. If we work together, we can destroy barriers.