The year was 2008, and I had just launched my first social venture, the Global Language Project (GLP). I didn’t think I was doing anything radical by being a woman of color who founded an organization that inspired students in my community of Harlem, New York to become global citizens. After a successful international career in the private sector, I thought surely that my lived experience, work abroad, and track record of success would translate into a meaningful social venture.
I didn’t know that — due to my race and gender — statistics predicted my new venture would operate sub-scale and remain underfunded compared to organizations led by my white peers. I didn’t know that while nonprofits often support people of color, their leadership is 90 percent white.
Why does this matter?
I found myself frequently justifying why, after living in a life of poverty myself, a program that equips children with a second language and cultural competency could be game-changing. I knew this to be true from my own life. I grew up in a community where gun violence was the norm. A daughter of a teenage mother and orphaned at four years old, I should have been a statistic. My saving grace was learning about the opportunities the world provided beyond my disinvested community.
But making the case to potential GLP funders and donors — most of whom were white — was more difficult than I anticipated. Many of the people I presented to grew up in middle class and wealthy families where traveling internationally was common. Many of the privileged schools they attended began teaching a second language in elementary school. They were so used to these opportunities that many didn’t readily see the profound impact that language could have on youth in disinvested communities.
It was during this experience that I realized that we needed more people who shared the lived experience of their constituents. This drove me to pursue my doctorate, and my research centered on the intersection of race and gender in philanthropy. During this time, I learned that while many foundations purported to support DEI, these organizations often failed to demonstrate how they value it in terms of dollars.
A recent report by seed incubator Echoing Green and Bridgespan Group quantifies the “depth of racial inequities in philanthropy and showcases why population-level impact cannot happen without funding more leaders of color and funding them more deeply.” The authors found that white-led groups had budgets that were 24 percent larger than those led by people of color. It also found that groups led by Black women received less money than those led by Black men or white women.
What am I doing about it?
In many ways, entrepreneurship is the backbone of this country. There are 27 million entrepreneurs in the country and 30 million small businesses which make up 99.9 percent of all businesses. It is the local entrepreneur who identifies an opportunity in her community, puts a sign out, and hires neighbors — meaning my kid and yours have a chance to get a job. When that does not happen or when entrepreneurs are under-resourced (as we know many entrepreneurs of color are), we are lagging the engine that helps run this country.
It is this experience that led me to philanthropy and funding. I wanted to ensure entrepreneurs could focus on pitching their ideas versus justifying their existence.
At New Profit, we helped launched the Future of Work Grand Challenge to address both the capital access gap for entrepreneurs of color and the issue of connecting communities of color to growth-sector employment. This is part of a larger strategy within the entire New Profit organization to provide capital to Black, Latinx, and Indigenous entrepreneurs.
We’re also centering support for proximate entrepreneurs as seen in our 30 to 40 percent commitment to these innovators. From my experience with GLP to now, we’re signaling to entrepreneurs that shared, lived experiences are critical to the development of their solutions.
What can you do about it?
First, don’t wait for others to make a difference. If you are an investor, know that you are in the driver’s seat. You can ask that the companies you invest in take diversity seriously. Kapor Capital has a great pledge to help portfolio companies make collective progress in the areas of diversity and inclusion.
This Black Philanthropy Month, I urge you to do more than learn about the rocky terrain that diverse entrepreneurs and funders navigate. Start with the steps below:
- Hire more people who share the same lived experience and socio-economic background of the people you aim to serve.
- After focusing on diversity, zero in on inclusion. Listen to your staff of color and ensure that their ideas are “included” in your strategy. Let them help you change the way you operate.
- Rinse and repeat steps one and two for your board of directors.
- Truly stand within your commitment to equity and make it public. Take a page from MacKenzie Bezos and Mitch and Freada Kapor and be transparent about your giving or funding — especially as it relates to racial equity.
I always say that the disparities and social fissures we see are man-made and designed. In many ways, this is good news because we can make different choices to advance a more equitable and just society.
Philanthropists — for good or bad — have an outsized influence on dollars invested. With every dollar that we invest more equitably in organizations with leaders of color or in entrepreneurs of color, we are helping to design the world we want to see.