Entrepreneurship is the bedrock of the American economy and a powerful tool for creating new products, technologies, and services. A new report commissioned by American Express indicates that the number of businesses owned by black women grew 322 percent since 1997, making black females the fastest-growing group of entrepreneurs in the U.S. “We attribute the growth in women-owned firms to the lack of fair pay, fair promotion, and family-friendly policies found in corporate America,” said Margot Dorfman, CEO of the U.S. Women’s Chamber of Commerce. “Women of color, when you look at the statistics, are impacted more significantly by all of the negative factors that women face. It’s not surprising that they have chosen to invest in themselves,” she added.
And yet, black-owned businesses continue to be severely under-capitalized with little to no structures to acquire the funding and social capital necessary to scale a successful startup, according to digitalundivided, a California based investment firm. Black-owned businesses are also the least likely to survive three years after startup.
Black upStart, founded in November 2015 by Kezia Williams, a black woman, seeks to remedy these challenges by convening small cohorts of competitively selected black entrepreneurs and innovators at the Black upStart Bootcamp. “Freedom is the ability to control your own entrepreneurial talents. My goal is to create a village that incubates innovators equipped to start, grow and scale successful and profitable businesses,” Williams noted.
The bootcamp assists participants in generating startup capital, brainstorming a business idea, validating the idea, building a minimum viable product, and testing the product with customers. “We map out how to identify venture capital, leverage community support, and how to fall in love with the grind,” said Kezia Williams, founder and Program Director of Black upStart. “Using history as a guide, we prove that success is possible among our people, and our outcomes prove that our ancestors’ blueprint is not outdated it’s an outline for present day entrepreneurs,” she added.
The Black upStart curriculum, which is reviewed and validated by an academic advisory committee, is administered over the course of two weeks. It is uniquely informed by a culturally relevant, afro-centric perspective that teaches black Americans how to overcome obstacles that are specific to their communities. “Recently I attended a hackathon for young, black students,” Williams said. “The facilitators were telling the students they should aspire to be successful like Bill Gates and Steve Jobs. I believe you fail a black student when you them how to succeed like a white male. The privileges afforded to a white male are not comparable to a black American’s experience. Black upStart teaches black people how to turn obstacles specific to race into profitable opportunities.” The core themes covered by the curriculum include “Understanding the African American Marketplace,” “Building Your Prototype,” and “Economics: Understanding Your Market + Making the Sale.”
Bootcamp participants indicate that the curriculum is highly effective at providing structure to the business creation process, supporting ideation, and building strong entrepreneurial networks.
Nearly 50 participants have graduated from the Bootcamp and many have went on to create a variety of profitable and successful businesses. Two women joined the Bootcamp with the hope of opening a studio space in Washington, DC’s for black artists on a budget. They were inspired by their bright idea, but lacked the capital necessary to open a brick and mortar space. Through the Bootcamp they were able to brainstorm how to approach solving their problem by applying a different solution. The result was blankspace.us, an app connecting artists to affordable studio space. The app attracted immediate attention after launch and the response helped validate the viability of their idea. The product is in beta, but will launch fully soon. Their social enterprise—once fully matured—will not only meet the need of “starving artists” but will create a safe space for young, aspiring black artists to develop their craft.