With a background in computer science, community organizing, and education, I began my entrepreneurial journey by building a tepee in my living room. I put it up on Airbnb for supplemental income, and the response was overwhelming.
My story is not unique. Historically, due to systemic marginalization and discrimination, black women have had no choice but to be innovative. Today, nourished by the dreams of our mothers, aunts, and grandmothers, we are harnessing that creative energy to launch our own businesses. The numbers are clear: Women of color are the fastest-growing group of entrepreneurs in the United States.
In 2016, I launched Black Girl Ventures, which creates access to social and financial capital for black and brown woman-identifying founders, from a basement in Washington, D.C. Since then, Black Girl Ventures has grown into a national movement celebrating the ingenuity, hard work, and entrepreneurial spirit of black and brown women. Our raison d’être is to validate the experience of black and brown woman-identifying founders, to address the unique challenges they face, and to leverage our national network of entrepreneurs, investors, and advisers to help them succeed.
Black Girl Ventures is rooted in the values of hard work, innovation, and—most importantly—community. In addition to creating access to financial capital, we offer Community-Building As a Service. I have experienced firsthand how relationships and introductions are essential to open doors to new opportunities as a serial entrepreneur. I can not emphasize this enough: Black and brown entrepreneurs, especially women, need access to new networks. That’s why I see providing access to social capital as a critical business offering to ensure the development and growth of small businesses.
Black Girl Ventures just launched chapters in five cities that are growing entrepreneurial hubs but also carry a rich legacy of African American business and community organizing. Birmingham is a city emblematic of the civil rights movement. In Durham, we’re working to revitalize a city once known as Black Wall Street. African Americans have been an essential part of the social and economic fabric of Houston since its founding. Miami was home to thriving black-owned businesses in the early 1900s, particularly in Overtown, which is now undergoing a renaissance. Finally, in Philadelphia, we are building on the historical contributions of prominent black leaders in business, social activism, politics, and culture.
Our community-building efforts make Black Girl Ventures an asset not only to the entrepreneurs we serve but also to the cities we operate in. In each city, we’ve recruited five black and brown female leaders to form local Venture Boards, which foster collaboration between the business community, universities, and local government. We train these women through our Change Agent Program, focused on leadership incubation and development. Each chapter is then equipped to implement the Black Girl Ventures Pitch Competition Program in its market, providing local black and brown woman-identifying entrepreneurs with access to coaching and capital. They also run our Pitch Masters Bootcamp, which supports founders with training in business storytelling, public speaking, and stage presence.
The Black Girl Ventures signature crowdfunded pitch competitions are modeled after the early 20th century Harlem rent parties, created in response to discriminatory rental rates and attended by luminaries such as Langston Hughes, Duke Ellington, and Fats Waller. Event attendees contribute an average of $35 to our founders. All of our events include call and response, poetry, music, and storytelling, drawing on the rich oral tradition of our community.
I believe in the power of building community to bring about systemic change. I am inspired to see black and brown female founders across the nation coming together and fostering the growth of more inclusive local economies. It’s time for people to pay attention to the shifting paradigm. Everyone can play a part. Donate your time, expertise, or money to ecosystem
builders. Bring diverse voices to the table and listen to what they have to say. Add cognitive diversity to your diversity and inclusion initiatives. Cultivate a real sense of belonging.
This February, we celebrate Black History Month. As we pay homage to our black and brown ancestors who dreamt of social and economic justice, the time is ripe to close the diversity gap in entrepreneurship. To ensure a prosperous future for all Americans, we must make building inclusive local startup ecosystems a top priority.
Let’s work together to ensure black and brown women get an equal shot in business.
Shelly Bell is the founder and CEO of Black Girl Ventures.