Baltimore’s The WELL Offers Grants, Virtual Accelerators And Sisterhood To Black Women-Owned Businesses

John-John Williams IV
Baltimore Sun

WWR Article Summary (tl;dr) Karyl Leggio, professor of finance at Loyola University Maryland’s Sellinger School of Business says “The WELL provides an invaluable service to Black women.”… “It is a marvelous resource for Baltimore and Black-owned businesses.”


It was the death of someone she admired from afar that prompted Nakeia Drummond to finally launch The WELL, a support network for Black businesswomen.

Drummond was initially drawn to the style of fashion blogger Kyrzayda Rodriguez, then closely followed her near-yearlong battle with cancer. When Rodriguez died in 2018, Drummond said she resolved to make her own dream a reality.

“She lived out loud and she died that way too,” Drummond said. “If there is something you want to do, do it now.”
Drummond, a 39-year-old Randallstown resident, said that a year earlier, some business industry leaders had questioned her plans.

“I was met with so much of, ‘Why just Black women?’ The confusion around how that was truly a business need and a business case for it,” she said. “I didn’t have confidence in starting it right away.”

But a month after Rodriguez’s death, she started The WELL (the name is an acronym of Women Entrepreneur Leadership Lab).

Since the launch, The WELL has blossomed into 70 members with chapters in Washington, D.C.; Milwaukee; Detroit; Charlotte, North Carolina; Atlanta; New York and Los Angeles. Members meet regularly, exchange ideas, and support one another.

The organization sponsors a “We Got Your Back” grant, a pitch competition that rewards recipients up to $24,000. In 2020, The WELL also launched Early Entrepreneur Growth Program, a six-month virtual accelerator program for businesses owned by Black women that have operated for less than two years and generate less than $25,000 in annual revenue.

Drummond gets the money for the organization through membership dues, as well as grants from corporate sponsors such as General Motors. She also receives funding from partnerships such as CLLCTIVLY, a Baltimore-based organization that focuses on Black initiatives, and Reimagine Main Street, a national initiative to advance and uplift innovative solutions during COVID-19.

“The WELL really was out of my own needs and yearnings,” which Drummond defined as her own struggles to obtain social capital and to address isolation with “the antithesis of that — community.”

The WELL provides an invaluable service to Black women, according to Karyl Leggio, professor of finance at Loyola University Maryland’s Sellinger School of Business.

“It is a marvelous resource for Baltimore and Black-owned businesses,” Leggio said. “It is such a resource and great idea. It gives participants confidence and sense of purpose.”

Leggio specifically cited the financial benefits of the organization.

“Funding is always an issue. There are all types of studies that show the bias against women-owned business in general. Baltimore has done a good job fostering an entrepreneur culture, but it’s not Silicon Valley or Boston. There is not the level of funding,” Leggio said.

She added: “In general, accelerators are highly successful. They provide a sense of community. There is a sharing of resources and a sharing of ideas and information that help businesses become very successful.”

Detra Miller, a business banking regional manager for M&T Bank, provided free meeting space for The WELL, in addition to mentoring members and sharing strategies and resources to make their businesses successful.

“There is a lot of information that a lot of Black women do not know about,” Miller said, adding that as first-generation business owners they often lack startup money and strategies needed to keep a new business afloat. The WELL can eliminate many of those growing pains.

Miller also pointed to the revenue gap as a reason The WELL is needed.

Black women-owned businesses represent 21% of all women-owned businesses, yet earn an average revenue of $24,000 compared with $142,900 for all women-owned businesses, according to a 2019 “State of Women-Owned Businesses” report by American Express.

“They have great energy and passion, but unfortunately they are not getting the things they need to be successful,” Miller said. “I just truly believe that if we can create more spaces for Black women to succeed, not only will it help small businesses survive, it will have a great impact on this country,” Miller said. “If we spent more time supporting Black women, we would see more of them being successful.”

The revenue gap also concerns Drummond.

“Reaching parity with white women is our baseline. That is not our goal,” Drummond said. “Our goal is to support Black women in business to the level of their dreams. We don’t have a dollar mark. We have a life achievement mark.”
Dominiece Clifton, 34, of East Baltimore, owns Move and Still, which focuses on stress management and trauma recovery. She won a $24,000, no-strings-attached yearlong grant from The WELL as part of its “We Got Your Back” program and received her first monthly payment of $2,000 in December.

“It has already made a huge difference,” Clifton said. “It has allowed me to take time and pause and continue yoga certification and set the foundation for the business.”

In addition to running the business, Clifton has two children, ages 2 and 5, and things have been “pretty overwhelming,” she said. The grant means she can plan more thoroughly for the future.

“They saw themselves in my story and where I was in my business,” Clifton said of the program’s judges, “It resonated with them because most of them have been in my place in the past.”

When Macee Caple, 32, of Parkville, joined The WELL four years ago as a founding member, her business was good, but it could have been better. The owner of The Carroll School of Dance in Northeast Baltimore was frustrated with her accountant, and she needed peers she could bounce ideas off.

Working with the organization, she has tripled the number of students, signed contracts with Baltimore City Public Schools and has the support of a group of women who can offer guidance.

“I didn’t have any peers my age,” Caple said. “I wanted to be a part of a group of Black women I could grow with. It was a way for me to bring up any issues I had with other entrepreneurs. It allowed me to push through those hurdles and break through.”

Drummond explained that this advocacy work was particularly valuable for members during the coronavirus pandemic, when businesses faced supply and labor shortages in addition to navigating the federal Paycheck Protection Program process.

“Having that space where you could get access to resources and the community, was invaluable,” Miller said.
Kirsten Allen, 33, lives in Oliver in East Baltimore. She started Brazen Consulting & Accounting, a Baltimore-based strategic and planning company in 2018 and joined The WELL in 2020. She also said it was invaluable during the pandemic.

“It’s a safe space to talk about the challenges that small businesses face. We’ve been able to collaborate with the other businesses in The WELL which has allowed us to branch off and expand our audiences,” Allen said.

Allen said that The WELL has given her the confidence necessary to balance a roster of more than a half dozen clients, including the Annie E. Casey Foundation, which focuses on children and at-risk youth, and Baltimore Promise, an organization that supports children’s health and education.

“I’m often the youngest in the room or the only woman in the room. When you struggle with confidence, and not having a seat at the table, it is important to have this support being the voice at these tables,” she said.

“The WELL — if nothing else — has given me the confidence to know that my business is needed and for me to show up as my best self,” Allen said. “It’s not just a professional space, it’s a sisterhood. You can call on these women. Not everything is about making a dollar. You need to talk to someone who can understand and has a genuine love for the sisterhood.”

Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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