Now that media coverage has subsided and black boxes are buried in Instagram feeds, the question remains, will the Black Lives Matter movement make a meaningful impact on the lives of Black Americans? With our government floundering to cope with a global pandemic, few people are hoping that progress towards racial equality will come from Washington, though Biden’s choice of Senator Kamala Harris as Vice President has renewed hope of policy change in 2021.
Many of the loudest voices promising change have come from corporate America. Bank of America pledged $1 billion to fight racial inequality. Tech companies pledged millions and promised to do better internally. For a few weeks in June, it seemed like every company, big and small, flooded email inboxes and social media channels condemning racism and pledging donations towards civil rights organizations.
But, as Congresswoman Barbara Lee and so many other Black leaders have pointed out, giving money away is easy compared to addressing the hiring, promotion and other workforce issues that Black Americans face. This is where corporate America has struggled, with less than 4% of all corporate leadership roles held by Black Americans and just four Black CEOs in the entire Fortune 500.
Many young talented Black Americans are leaving corporate America as they see their chances for advancement stagnant. A report by the Center for Talent Innovation found that while Black Americans are more likely to be ambitious in their career goals than their White counterparts, twenty percent of Black professionals believe that their company would never hire a Black person for a top position. Nearly 40% of Black millennials said that they planned to leave their job to start their own ventures.
This sentiment was reflected among many of the young Black leaders I interviewed. According to Tanya Van Court, the Founder and CEO of Goalsetter, “Corporate America branded millennials as ‘entitled’ early on in their careers, discarding a whole group of employees. Layer on top of that a Black millennial who says, ‘I feel like this structure is limiting and I want to do more’; it is anathema for the Corporate power structure. Black millennials had to find a way to create self-actualized lives [outside of Corporate America] that let them accomplish everything that they knew they were capable of.”
Aerica Shimizu Banks, an entrepreneur and equity consultant, spoke of how she was recently forced to quit Pinterest due to racist and sexist treatment. As she explained it, “When you continue to be excluded – from promotions, equal pay, opportunities, respectful working environments – many of us are taking the hint and leaving to start our own thing.”
Lindsay Lee, the Managing Director of Authentic Ventures, believes that startups are a place for black talent to shine due to their progressive nature. As he put it, “Many startups are led by young founders. Young founders are overwhelmingly progressive and they’re typically wired differently around issues of racial inequality. Their level of tolerance for injustice is lower and desire for action is higher. As small companies become big companies, this can create meaningful change.”
In my world of natural food startups, the conversation around how to accelerate the growth of Black-owned startups has led to a rich discussion. At a recent virtual conference, many Black food business owners pointed to the challenges they face in seeking funding.
Tanya Holland, the founder of Brown Sugar Kitchen and host of the Tanya’s Table podcast, explained, “We don’t get the investment to prove that we can do the work until we’ve bootstrapped and already done it. My white male counterparts would have people throwing checks at them if they’d achieved half of what I’ve accomplished.”
Kai Nortey, the founder of Kube Nice Cream, believes that her talent is “often overlooked and dismissed” as a Black woman founder, making it difficult for her to raise the capital her business needs to scale.
Decades of discrimination have led to a lack of generational wealth in the Black community, resulting in fewer black investors. Authentic Ventures, Lindsay Lee’s venture capital fund, invests in seed and early stage companies, many of whom are led by women and diverse founders. Lee says that “because people’s networks look like they do and less than 1% of VCs are Black, Black founders have a harder time getting in front of investors. This puts Black founders at a disadvantage from day one. Momentum matters. If you can quickly raise capital, build an A+ team, deliver a product and show tangible traction, you’ll be more likely to be successful and attract further capital.”
Recognizing the critical role that startups play in fostering Black talent, and the dearth of capital, many VCs and tech companies have made commitments to support black entrepreneurs. Softbank launched a $100 million fund, PayPal committed $530 million to support Black-owned businesses and Google pledged more than $175 million to support black entrepreneurs.
Though this capital is important, many Black leaders remain skeptical. As Tanya Van Court put it, “Infusing capital into a community within a 4 month period cannot erase 400 years of denying Black people equal participation in the aspects of society that other people take for granted – the freedom to go to a decent school, to be paid what you’re worth, to get a job commensurate with your degrees and experience, to walk freely in every neighborhood in America, to simply breathe.”
Ultimately, the sustained success of the Black Lives Matter movement will come down to each of us advocating for Black Americans in our jobs and communities. Corporate America may have the loudest voice, but the chorus of voices from Black entrepreneurs can be even more powerful. Startups have the ability to move quickly and promote Black voices as leaders in creating a more equitable world.