In our third annual State of Entrepreneurship survey, Fast Company and Inc. asked nearly 400 founders to share their perspectives on the business landscape today. The respondents, who came from 15 countries, chimed in on a range of subjects, many of which revolved around their personal challenges and experiences.
Once such a story comes from Orion Brown, CEO and founder of The Black Travel Box, a beauty and personal care company tailored to travelers of color, which she founded over three years ago. Brown spoke about the predatory nature of many programs and funds aimed at early-stage founders of color, and the inequities she and other Black entrepreneurs faced during the pitching and funding process. Her account has been edited for space and clarity.
I hear the word “niche” a lot about my company, The Black Travel Box. “Oh, you’re niche.” [But] beauty and personal care is not niche. I am very vocal about the product double standards and the beauty standards that are out there, [as well as] the lack of representation for [Black] folks, who are spending the most in the category.
While we’re starting to see more and more brands focused on people of color, [we’re] still woefully underrepresented, especially in relation to the dollars that we spend.
It’s very interesting how people perceive opportunities in the marketplace. I think a lot of it correlates with who we are serving, because if I’m not getting a question about how small my business is, I’m getting [asked], “Why is this not for me?” This is usually from a person who is not a person of color—which, for me, feels discriminatory. Every time I go in an aisle, I see 52 faces of [white people], and I have to assume those products are for me.
When we talk about the idea of funding and such, there is such a blind spot, where people truly believe that they are participating as very liberal supporters or allies, but then it still ends up being predicated on a lot of fallacies. When I say that these programs are borderline predatory, I don’t mean people are going out just to defraud Black founders. I don’t think that’s their intent. But the outcome is predatory.
We hear it’s a pipeline issue, that there’s just not enough POC founders or Black founders or Black female founders, which is untrue. We already know Black women leading growth in terms of founding companies over the last several years.
In the typical setting, it might happen something like this: Someone might say, “let me get you access to funding,” because you’re making big bets on ideas. And these are those ideas from casual chats or during a cocktail party, where you walk out with $150K of pre-seed money. Those instances where, “Oh, I wrote my idea on a napkin, and we started talking, and you connected me with four other people—and now I have your first round [of funding].” This kind of “light-bulb idea” moment.
Whereas, for us [POC founders], we’re seeing a lot more of, “Yes, we want to get you into this program, because we don’t think you’re going to be a capable entrepreneur.” And, “we don’t believe that you’re actually investable. You’re not actually at the quality of the people we invest in.”
This is what many of [these investors] are saying. And this is usually without having had any discussion. This is a blanket assumption. They say: “We’re going to put you in this program and make you funding-ready, or it will get your product ready.” We’re going to do this, and we’re going to do that. And oftentimes, the programs do not culminate in any cash. In fact, many of these programs require you to pay to be in them.
Whether or not these programs are legitimate: Why is it they are teaching basic P&L when many of us have MBAs? It seems these programs are predicated on an ignorance of our capabilities and the assumption we don’t know how to do these basics. But we [early-stage POC founders] enter these programs. Though I can’t speak for everyone, the conversations I’ve been having mostly go [like]: “I thought it was a good idea, because at least I can meet some people; I can network and get in front of some people that might invest money in me.”
It’s hours a week of participating, working, doing small things that may not even actually be relevant to the business, just to get our feet in the door with people that we should be able to have conversations with and understand funding.
We are a group who is over-mentored and underfunded.
I completely know that people go through hundreds and hundreds of “no’s,” but, when you’re having a conversation about “Why is this product for me?” and you also can’t even talk about your business idea and the mechanics of it, it’s frustrating.
The runaround we’re getting is not the same. I know I’m not a traditional tech company. I understand the disadvantage, but, at the same time, stop trying to educate me on how to run a business. Instead, give me the funds and the resources to do it right.
This is a conversation we’ve been having in the Black startup community for a while—that we are a group who is over-mentored and underfunded. Also, we’re the founders that don’t have the cash, the institutional funding, or the familial funding. Our families don’t have that wealth generationally. This is where the disadvantage comes in.
Coming into entrepreneurship has been such a learning space. It’s a beautiful and exciting thing learning how to be an entrepreneur. But investors frequently say, “We prefer people who have founded multiple companies.”
Well, how did these founders found their first company? By the way, these founders funded and failed three companies before they succeeded; I haven’t failed at anything yet. I want to have room to fail, just like any white, cisgender male.