Ecosystems + Economies

How to Support Black Entrepreneurship in Your Community

We gathered three lessons from our partners who are excelling in this area of community building.

Black entrepreneurship has a rich history in the United States. 

Because of the workforce discrimination they have faced, Black Americans have historically turned to entrepreneurship for their livelihoods. Starting a business is a great way to support one’s community, become economically independent, and build household wealth.

But for over a century, Black business owners have faced numerous challenges. In recent years, our country has had a lot of conversations about supporting Black businesses and platforming Black voices.

Following through on those discussions is important, and many leaders wonder how they can do more to support Black entrepreneurship in their communities.

As it turns out, CO.STARTERS has many local partners who are already doing this important work in their communities. Here are a couple key lessons we’ve learned from leaders in our network.

Meet people where they are—literally.

Memphis, like many other American cities, has a bustling downtown. But there is often a disconnect between the commercial, urbanized activity in the heart of the city and the neighborhoods surrounding it.

Community leaders often start business development initiatives, accelerators, and incubators in a city’s downtown—where all the commerce is. This only makes sense, however, if you’re trying to serve established businesses. But it’s inadequate for serving entrepreneurs.

A community’s aspiring entrepreneurs are likely not spending their time on the streets of the financial district, because they have no reason to be there yet.

“A community’s most promising future businesses are mostly unexecuted—they live in the heads of uncertain dreamers,” shared Taylor Sherbine, Community Manager for CO.STARTERS community partner Epicenter Memphis

“To reach people, you have to meet them where they are, not where you’d like them to be,” she told us.

If you want to help start new businesses, you need to go to where the aspiring entrepreneurs spend most of their time—their neighborhoods.

To support entrepreneurs, you can’t wait for the would-be business owners to come to you—you have to meet them where they are.

For Epicenter Memphis, an organization that prioritizes the flourishing of Black-owned businesses, this has meant dedicating entire programs and staff to Frayser, an underserved neighborhood north of the city center. 

To support entrepreneurs, you can’t wait for the would-be business owners to come to you—you have to meet them where they are.

Don't neglect the early stage.

It’s very common now in America for a city to have a business accelerator. And while these programs are usually quite effective at helping established businesses to scale, hire more employees, and increase their revenue, they are not good at helping more people start new businesses.

Community leaders are often less incentivized to invest resources in early stage businesses, because they are viewed as “risky.” It’s much safer to lend money or dedicate programs to established businesses that have proven their viability.

“There are several entrepreneurship programs in the area, but none like ours. Nothing touching the ultra-small business, the just-getting-started side-hustlers.”

However, many of the hurdles and challenges facing entrepreneurs of color exist at the early, concept stages of a business. Getting a business off the ground requires access to resources like business know-how, spare time, and startup capital, which can be more difficult to come by for people of color.

This was the problem that CO.STARTERS community partner Village Launch sought to remedy in Greenville, South Carolina. 

“There are several entrepreneurship programs in the area, but none like ours,” shared Jeanette Brewster, Village Launch’s Program Coordinator. “Nothing touching the ultra-small business, the just-getting-started side-hustlers.”

In the last four years, Village Launch has supported over 60 new small businesses in the Greenville area using CO.STARTERS programs, financial coaching, microloans, and mentorship programs. Their entrepreneurs, 85 percent of whom are women, are providing jobs and fostering a resilient community within a changing city.

Early stage support may be seen as “riskier,” but it’s critical for empowering entrepreneurs—especially Black Americans.

Social and intellectual capital are as important as financial capital.

Business owners need lots of help and advice, especially as they’re just getting started. For the leaders at SpringGR in Grand Rapids, Michigan, getting Black and Hispanic entrepreneurs “social capital” ranks as high a priority as financial capital.

“It’s not who you know as much as who knows you,” clarified Arlene Campbell, SpringGR’s Chief Creator of Opportunities. “Our entrepreneurs, historically, have a lot less access to people and connections in the business world.”

Similarly, “intellectual capital” is also a must for people looking to serve under-resourced entrepreneurial communities. 

Looking around Grand Rapids, SpringGR saw a growing ecosystem that worked well for white entrepreneurs but poorly for Black and Hispanic business owners. They realized that gap, partly due to a lack of cash, was also a knowledge gap.

“One thing we’ve seen is that people will become discouraged by their lack of financial resources and let that discouragement keep them from pursuing their business ideas,” mentioned Attah Obande, Director of Dream Fulfillment at SpringGr. “So we want to get people the knowledge they need long before they start thinking about capital.”

SpringGR has implemented mentorship programs, and business coaching, as well as a CO.STARTERS program to bring social and intellectual capital to the businesses they serve. 

The result? 

They’ve supported over 680 entrepreneurs, 87 percent of whom are people of color and 68 percent of whom are women. “Our graduates win about a third of all the local pitch competitions,” beamed Attah.

Supporting Black entrepreneurship is incredibly important at this moment in our country. The lessons we’ve outlined here, shared with us by leaders at Epicenter Memphis, Village Launch, and SpringGR, are essential guidelines for building diverse, equitable, and inclusive economies.

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