American innovation has long been the envy of the world. Throughout our country’s history, thanks to our free enterprise system, people from all walks of life have brought forth innovations that benefited society broadly—in all sectors such as energy, transportation, health care and more. These innovations often came about from those who “lived the problem” and dreamed great solutions that could benefit the masses. These were entrepreneurs who built young enterprises to bring their products and services to market and who often changed the world in the process.
Today, we need to ensure that American innovation isn’t simply about providing more convenience for the privileged—such as easier hotel bookings, more and comfortable ways to get from point A to point B or same-day delivery of groceries from an upscale market. To build solutions for the future, we need to move beyond the “app culture” and engage a new class of entrepreneurs—many who have lived real problems and are building real solutions to the challenges in our communities, and around the globe. But in recent years, this segment of entrepreneurs has often been left on the sidelines of innovations, with no steady flow of capital, mentorship or celebration focused on them.
It is well known that the vast majority of today’s celebrated startups continue to be founded by white, well-educated, well-networked males. And while we celebrate all startups and new innovations—we are underleveraged as a nation if those in more marginalized communities are left on the sidelines. There is, for instance, immense potential for women, people of color and those who don’t live on the coasts or graduate from our nation’s most elite schools. Women are leading 36 percent of all businesses in the U.S., but only receive 10 percent of venture capital funding. Minority-owned businesses are growing at a faster clip than non-minority owned businesses, but are receiving an even smaller fraction of investments. Seventy five percent of venture capital today goes to three states—California, New York and Massachusetts. There is a growing realization that this has to change, including at the highest levels in our nation and among those who are driving this change.
For example, today in New Orleans, PowerMoves, a minority-focused incubator, is backing young enterprises that reach across socio-economic barriers to bring opportunities to those often the last to benefit from innovation. In the first year of operation, PowerMoves worked with 87 companies to create 350 jobs in New Orleans and Detroit. Because of PowerMoves’ work, these companies were able to secure $14M in additional capital commitments to high growth, high tech startups led by entrepreneurs of color. Crystal McDonald, a PowerMoves entrepreneur, developed GoToInterview, a service to connect hourly workers with companies that have demand for them, and won the Rise of the Rest pitch competition in New Orleans.
And there are many more examples of entrepreneurs from underrepresented populations that are seeking solutions to problems that benefit all, like Pashon Murray, a dynamic entrepreneur of color in Detroit. Inspired at an early age by her father’s waste hauling company, Pashon turned family knowledge into a scalable business that takes food waste from companies, including General Motors and the Detroit Zoo, and transforms it into rich soil for local farmers to enhance crop productivity and create jobs. For Pashon, it’s not just about the hauling of waste—she is also a fellow at the MIT Media Lab studying the science of composting and waste reduction. She is combining science, engineering, the needs of a community and her entrepreneurial spirit to create a viable, scalable business in Detroit.
The opportunity to tap into the potential of these entrepreneurs is top of mind for us at the Case Foundation, and why we are delighted that today, the White House will host its first ever Demo Day, with a focus on inclusive entrepreneurship—bringing together entrepreneurs from all walks of life and from all across the country. We look forward to joining President Obama today in a commitment to see “more startup hotbeds emerge in every corner of America, and that those underrepresented in entrepreneurship are being tapped to fully contribute their entrepreneurial talents.”
In fact, here at the Case Foundation, we’ve long believed in the potential for unleashing entrepreneurs—and entrepreneurial approaches—as a clear path for making the world a better place. Over the past 18 years, we’ve developed and supported a range of initiatives—many of them in partnership with the White House, with Presidents of both parties—that put entrepreneurs in the middle of solving big problems, from the West Bank to Detroit, from DC to Nairobi. These initiatives include the U.S.-Palestinian Partnership, an effort to bring entrepreneurship opportunities to the West Bank that I was asked to co-chair in 2007 by President George W. Bush, and the Startup America Partnership, focused on celebrating and accelerating entrepreneurs here in the U.S., which we launched in partnership with the Kauffman Foundation and the Obama administration in 2011. More recently, our focus has shifted to an effort to unleash new capital for entrepreneurs building businesses that seek to address significant social challenges, through our work to catalyze the burgeoning impact investing movement.
Our efforts to support entrepreneurs and the role they play in driving innovation and job growth in the U.S. and around the world have certainly been rewarding. But in the past year, we began to ask ourselves, what role can entrepreneurship play in bringing new opportunities to those left on the sideline? How can we level the playing field for underrepresented communities—including women and people of color—to become entrepreneurs and grow thriving businesses? And how can we facilitate the creation of more businesses that address the challenges that marginalized populations are facing? To help us answer these questions, we began an exploration at the beginning of the year into potential opportunities for inclusive entrepreneurship, and funded two organizations doing important work in this space—Forward Cities and Opportunity Nation. We also joined the most recent Rise of the Rest tour, supplementing the visits to Richmond, Raleigh-Durham, Charleston, Atlanta and New Orleans with conversations focused on how to expand entrepreneurship as an opportunity for all. And we just returned last week from exploring these topics on a global scale during a trip to Africa, focused on exploring burgeoning entrepreneurial ecosystems in Kenya, Ghana and Nigeria.
We are committed to expanding our support for inclusive entrepreneurship, and in the coming months you will hear more from us on our efforts to build upon the momentum from national conversations around diversity, reduce common barriers to entrepreneurship faced by diverse entrepreneurs and scale local pilots into national programs serving women and entrepreneurs of color.
We have a tremendous opportunity today to tap into the uniquely American legacy of leveraging entrepreneurs to grow our economy, strengthen communities and solve intractable problems. But we’ll never recognize our full potential if we don’t focus on ensuring that we give all people—no matter their gender, ethnicity or economic background—the opportunity to be a part of growing entrepreneurial ecosystems, and tap their unique experiences to solve significant challenges. Imagine what is possible when we have a full team and all fields in play!