Putting Entrepreneurs of Color in the Center: What Ecosystems and City Government Can Do

These cities are part of two initiatives – Start Up, Stay Up, Scale Up [SU(3)] and City Accelerator – that are designed to support local organizations and players to build more inclusive entrepreneurial ecosystems, particularly for high-growth entrepreneurs of color and those looking to grow their businesses. The cities recognize the need to support Main Street businesses and startups owned by people of color. When we developed SU(3) and our City Accelerator on Local Business and Job Growth, we wanted to address the dearth of coordinated support and adequate services for entrepreneurs of color wishing to scale exponentially, and those who are growing locally. (Since then, Endeavor, Federal Reserve of Kansas City, Kauffman Foundation and others have released recommendations to support entrepreneurs of color.)

The cities didn’t have a blueprint to follow. But Living Cities was fortunate to engage two ecosystem-builders to coach them. Rod Miller and Monique Woodard have developed networks in U.S. cities that use the power of policy and partnerships and increased investment in entrepreneurs of color. They are sought after by entrepreneurial ecosystem players all over the world to exchange lessons and advise entrepreneur networks.

We recently reflected on their experiences coaching different ecosystem actors. Monique has been working with community foundations, economic development organizations, and venture capital investors. Rod has been collaborating primarily with local government staff. Despite the different levels of power and authority that these organizations and their staff possess, they all have acknowledged their roles as gatekeepers—to funds, to relationships, and to information—in their cities. They have worked on applying a racial equity lens to solutions that are based on direct connection with entrepreneurs of color. Based on these connections, the cities Rod and Monique are coaching have increased their awareness of the impact of structural racism on their entrepreneurs’ businesses. Several themes have emerged from this work that probably sound familiar to others working with and supporting entrepreneurs of color:

  • Being a majority of the population does not mean you get a majority of the receipts: Newark and New Orleans are investing in systemic interventions that will help Black founders and businesses participate in their city’s growth industries and get a larger share of the pie.

  • Cultural implications of raising capital and revenue in majority Latinx cities: Albuquerque and El Paso acknowledge that cultural values influence the growth ambitions of their local entrepreneurs and their capital needs by developing strategies that address the barriers that these entrepreneurs face in finding investors and getting contracts.

  • Robust ecosystems do not equal equitable ecosystems: While the creation of new firms and deal flows are constant, Atlanta and San Francisco must tackle the displacement of entrepreneurs of color that has come from more capital in their markets and the resulting rise in residential and commercial real estate costs.

  • Institutions are not always trusted service providers: Long Beach and Rochester are demonstrating how local government can apply a racial equity lens to economic development by investing in transformative partnerships with community-based organizations to better serve entrepreneurs of color.

With Monique and Rod’s expertise, the cities were able to re-evaluate some of their proposed solutions to addressing gaps in services and capital access. As Monique advises, “When you consider what can be fixed: assume the deficiency of the ecosystem, not the deficiency of the entrepreneur.”

Ventured

While investing in capacity-building programs can be helpful, or focusing on networking and matchmaking events can help to catalyze relationships, these activities alone do not make an ecosystem. To dismantle the systems that exclude entrepreneurs of color from resources, local government, foundations, and anchor institutions must fix their own processes and policies.

For example, we far too often have seen government interventions perpetuate the narrative that communities of color are always low-income communities. Services to entrepreneurs of color are consequently seen as social service programs. As influencers in their ecosystem, city staff must interrogate their perceptions of entrepreneurs of color and take action to undo any negative effects their governments generate. Cities need to use their power. Identifying the role of the government in their ecosystem is the topic of Rod’s upcoming City Accelerator implementation guide for practitioners, Economic Revitalization through Diverse Business Growth: A How to Guide for Cities (working title). In it, Rod challenges cities to think about how often they put entrepreneurs of color in a box and address their issues from a social service or political lens. He has seen too many grants offered to entrepreneurs of color that require them to serve a certain market, locate in a particular neighborhood, or hire certain residents. These strings are not and have not been attached to all entrepreneurs seeking funds or resources from the city.

“Local government needs to change the culture of the way their city does business with entrepreneurs of color and ask themselves how they can engage them in an authentic way that provides those entrepreneurs with greater access to markets, capital, and partners,” Rod says.

This week, the Project on Municipal Innovation will meet, and I will be facilitating a conversation with Rod and Monique to engage mayoral chiefs of staff to consider how they can shape the culture of government to foster growth for businesses of color in coordination with other ecosystem actors. Later in October, Monique, T.D. Lowe and I will be speaking with impact investors on the SOCAP stage, offering them solutions to the challenges that high-growth entrepreneurs of color face.

Whether you are in local government, a business-serving organization, a funder of ecosystems, an investor, we encourage you to look for more strategies, lessons and inspiration from our inclusive ecosystem communities of practice on this site.

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Decolonizing Lunch Part II: Putting Our Values into Action

Read Part I of our decolonizing lunch series.

Living Cities’ New York City and Washington, DC offices are both located in busy, downtown metropolitan neighborhoods where restaurant chains like Pret-a-Manger abound. These chain restaurants have the infrastructure and technology to facilitate easy ordering and delivery, and serve the many office buildings around them with so-called typical American fare. Customer service is consistent, delivery is generally punctual, and our staff members tend to be familiar with the dishes served.

Over the last year, we started looking for real-time opportunities to better align internally with our programmatic focus by supporting businesses owned by people of color. Staff members across the organization who were charged with securing lunch for various meetings and events began researching POC-owned restaurants and caterers.

We soon realized that perhaps the biggest challenge to diversifying our pool of food vendors would actually be finding restaurant owners and caterers of color. Google searches like “Black-owned restaurants nearby” yielded very limited results, so we tried work-arounds like “soul food” instead—working under the assumption that certain types of restaurants were more likely to be owned by POC. At times, we would call restaurants directly to inquire if the owner was a person of color, although asking, “Is this a Black-owned restaurant?” can be a bit awkward. Sometimes the person answering the phone did not even know the owner, let alone the owner’s race and ethnicity.

These encounters led to even more questions: What do we mean by vendors of color? African-American? Chinese? Dominican? Does Italian count? Do we only want to support businesses owned by POC, or is it enough that a restaurant employs POC? What if there are two owners, and one is a POC and the other is white? Is POC even the right term to be using?!

Suffice it to say, shifting away from white institutional norms in even the simplest ways, like ordering food, was harder and required more additional labor than we expected. When Google didn’t yield enough results, I reached out to personal networks outside of work, and requested recommendations from staff and external partners. I searched hashtags like #blackcatering on Instagram, and slowly but surely began to get disciplined about doing the extra work required to consistently do business with caterers of color.

But the work didn’t end there! Before we began this shift, I tended to use apps and online services like GrubHub and UberEats to place orders, which made the transaction extremely convenient. I was able to secure food within 24 hours or less and even track the order. However, most POC caterers that I found independently are not listed on these apps, and there was no easy service to facilitate ordering and delivery. Efficiency was a challenge because oftentimes a single person, usually the owner of the company, had to buy, cook, deliver a farther distance, and manage payment for every order.

Staff also had to become accustomed to some changes. In many cases, meals were no longer individualized, but instead buffet-style. Several caterers specialized in vegan/gluten-free dishes, so those became the bulk of some of our lunches, rather than a side dish. Meat-eaters expanded their palates to incorporate vegetarian options. We shifted away from eating traditional American food like sandwiches and salads regularly, in exchange for an expanded menu of different flavors that represented multiple cultures and dietary needs.

Part of my job success depends on the flawless execution of events, including catering. The first time a vendor of color showed up 30 minutes late, or a staff member complained that the food was too spicy, I was inclined to default to the easier methods of securing lunch using the usual methods. Luckily, I was already learning that shifting away from white institutional norms requires innovation and intentional effort.

In order to shift the lunch ordering ‘system,’ I had to expand my approach and accept some growing pains. Supporting vendors of color may include not only extra time to locate them and procure their services– placing orders further in advance—but also better quality communication, and most importantly the compassion to allow for hiccups. As we move from the transactional to the transformational relationships needed to move equity work forward, I chose to work to understand challenges POC caterers face, and sometimes offer vendors a second opportunity to make the best impression. Since applying this approach, I have been met with customer service that is full of care, humanity and excellence. The food vendors of color who we have developed relationships with over the last year always go the extra mile to make sure all our needs are met!

Now, staff members look forward to learning each month about the people and companies behind our food, and tasting something new! Personally, as a gatekeeper of organizational dollars, I feel satisfaction knowing I am doing my part to support the creation of jobs, income and wealth for people of color, in line with our organizational mission.

For your convenience, some of my colleagues have compiled a list of tried and true caterers and restaurants owned or operated by people of color. The bulk of them are in NYC and Washington, DC, with a few added options in cities where we have worked. Next time you have a company event, we hope this resource can be useful for you.

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