Spurred by the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery, last summer’s racial reckoning awakened America to the systemic inequities that exist within the country’s fundamental structures, from policing to the economy. One is the lack of access to capital for Black and Latino communities, among which business ownership rates are significantly lower than other racial groups.
Black Ambition—the winner of the impact investing category of Fast Company’s 2021 World Changing Ideas Awards—is a new initiative to attempt to change those numbers, by offering prizes to “fund bold ideas” by Black and Latino entrepreneurs in early stages of their businesses. “Our aim is really to dismantle the barriers that stand in the way of equitable futures for these communities,” says Darla Vaughn, head of brand marketing at the organization behind it, I Am Other, a collective of creative talent founded by Pharrell Williams.
“Black Ambition has been incubating in Pharrell’s head for several years,” Vaughn says of the artist, producer, and entrepreneur, but the project “accelerated after repeatedly witnessing structural and institutional violence on display in 2020.” The group created a set of prizes, under two funding categories: one for entrepreneurs who attend HBCUs, and one open to Black and Latino entrepreneurs more generally. Winners will receive a share of the $250,000 and $1 million set aside for each prize, respectively. The funding is supported by various partners, which include Adidas, Chanel, the Rockefeller Foundation, and the Visa Foundation.
Early-stage entrepreneurs with concepts, working prototypes, and viable products entered applications in the realms of tech, design, healthcare, and consumer products and services. In April, semifinalists were announced, and after some coaching on tightening applications, winners will soon be declared. In July, the winners will attend a virtual National Demo Day to present their ideas in front of a panel of judges and investors.
The financial award will be complemented by ongoing mentorships. Though they have yet to be announced, Vaughn says that Williams has dug into his network of subject-matter experts and industry leaders to provide a versatile team. The long-term goal is that finalists will be able to build up their networks—or the “scaffolding,” as Williams calls them—that are so critical to business success. “It’s not just the money,” Vaughn says. “There’s also a problem accessing information and tools for success.”
The plan is for this program to continue annually, gradually helping to build community and generational wealth that’s been missing for so long. On the way, they hope to dispel common myths about the absence of minorities in business, and to improve the concerning current statistics, which show that only about 3% of VC-backed companies are Black or Latino founded. “It will continue until there’s equity,” Vaughn says.