By Yadira Lopez The Miami Herald
WWR Business Summary (tl;dr) "Black Girl Ventures" is not only creating a pipeline to fund black women-owned businesses, but it is also providing a network that includes guidance, support, and mentorship.
Shelly Bell's resume includes performance poet and serial entrepreneur. As a performer, she had plenty of role models and cheering audiences. But as an entrepreneur, she was largely on her own.
The experience led her to create Black Girl Ventures to help female entrepreneurs of color connect with one another and gain access to influential networks and capital.
Miami is the latest stage for the Washington, D.C., organization. The chapter's planned launch earlier this year was thwarted by Florida's COVID-19 shutdown. But the newly created team is busy building a social media presence and brainstorming ways to offer the referrals, networking opportunities and coaching that Black Girl Ventures already offers in four other U.S. cities.
Miami's robust startup scene makes it a good fit for the organization, said Bell. Last year Biz2Credit tapped Miami as the best small-business city in America. There's momentum here, Bell added. But Black Girl Ventures is bringing in a gender-based approach to double down on women-owned firms of color. The organization is filling a gap, said Leigh-Ann Buchanan, executive director of Venture Café Miami.
"We're leaving money on the table, is the long and the short of it, if we don't pay attention to Black female founders," Buchanan said.
Black women nationwide are starting businesses at a faster rate than any other group, according to a 2018 report commissioned by American Express.
Yet there is a wide gap when it comes to funding. Startups led by Black women have raised just 0.6% of the $424.7 billion in total tech venture funding raised since 2009, according to a 2018 biennial demographic study known as ProjectDiane.
"We know we're growing," said Benita Gordon, one of four leaders of the Miami chapter. "We want to make sure Black and brown entrepreneurs, especially the females, are growing at the same time."
It's not just about funding, added Lisa Wilkinson, a licensed therapist who founded LMW Therapy Services and Behavioral Health and Wellness Consulting Group in Miami. "It's about access to other networks, to meeting other entrepreneurs, to learning how to barter your services and maneuver in different environments," said Wilkinson, who is also leading the Miami chapter.
While the Miami chapter launched in January, an official launch is up in the air for the first quarter of 2021. For now, Wilkinson and three other Miami-based entrepreneurs are working to engage people in the tri-county area online.
The organization helps startups every step of the way and walks entrepreneurs through scaling their business, said Michelle McKoy. A cofounder of Miami's first virtual reality expo, McKoy pointed to her own experience as a Black woman in tech. She recalls often being met with shock and having to explain her connection to the field.
"For a lot of women of color they find themselves stagnant, or they give up if they don't know how to take it from point A to point B," McKoy said. Having support is key, said Felecia Hatcher-Pearson, co-founder of Code Fever and BlackTech Week in Miami.
"Miami is one of those places where when you have an idea there's a very low barrier to entry to get started," she said. "But that's not a big celebration point because you can launch an idea today but not be able to connect to the resources you need."
An act of protest One of Black Girl Ventures' highlights is an annual pitch competition. The event is modeled after rent parties, a fixture of 1920s Harlem that helped tenants pay rent through admissions to house parties.
"It was kind of an act of protest," said Bell. "Community building for Black communities has been historically an act of protest."
The Black Girl Ventures competition uses crowdfunding to help give startups seed money. The audience votes with their dollars, donating funds through a proprietary virtual platform called SheRaise. Entrepreneurs also receive feedback on their pitches from judges. The crowdfunding events were previously held in person, but the organization is moving toward a virtual event due to the pandemic.
Black Girl Ventures is industry agnostic, said Bell. Some of the businesses funded through the pitch competition include a company that takes children on field trips using virtual reality, a subscription box for eco-friendly feminine products, and an online marketplace for Black artisans.
An upcoming virtual course, "Preparing a Perfect Pitch," will help interested startups in Miami qualify for the competition.
In her 15 years of entrepreneurial experience in South Florida, McKoy has noticed time and time again the thirst for not just capital, no matter how small, but also for guidance and one-on-one mentorship.
A lot of women, McKoy said, are looking for "an entity that can give them a clear vision and direction for the bigger picture. We're not just local, we're national."
Black Girl Ventures recently received $250,000 from the Knight Foundation and additional funding from the Kauffman Foundation and Google.
LaToya Stirrup, cofounder of the hair tools company Kazmaleje, is also leading the Miami chapter. She introduced the organization on a recent episode of Tech Beats and Bytes, a podcast she co-hosts.
One listener shared her experience of feeling marginalized as a woman of color seeking access to capital.
"When she heard we were coming down to South Florida she was like, I'm so excited because now I feel like I have a safe space where I can connect with other women business owners who are going to take me seriously, who are going to value my opinion, who are going to see me, hear me and help me to move forward," Stirrup said. "We're extremely excited to be that source for other women in South Florida."
To connect to Black Girl Ventures' Miami chapter visit the Instagram @BGV_305 or email [email protected] ___ Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.