Changing the Face of Entrepreneurship

Throughout our nation’s history we have celebrated entrepreneurship as a key to unlocking economic and technologic advancement, seeing ourselves as a country of innovators, discoverers and inventors. And each February we honor the integral role that black history has played in building and strengthening our nation. This week, I am thrilled to be in Miami for Black Tech Week and the launch of our partner PowerMoves’ recent expansion into the region. I can’t think of a better way to honor the role that entrepreneurs of color have played in making America the greatest “startup” ever!

But here’s the rub: when we talk about startups and entrepreneurship today, why is it that we are so hard-pressed to name entrepreneurs of color that made history and shaped our collective future? Why does our collective conscience go to equating “entrepreneur” with a white guy in a hoodie, toiling away alone in his garage, until he has a Eureka moment that changes life as we know it? Myths of the Entrepreneur persist and are perhaps disproportionately holding back entrepreneurs of color when our nation needs them most.

Let’s be reminded of some of the greatest innovations of our time, all led by entrepreneurs of color:

  • The carbon-filament light bulb invented by Lewis Latimer in 1881. Thomas Edison gets all the glow (no pun intended), but Latimer’s filament made it cheaper, more efficient and, therefore, more practical and profitable.
  • The gas mask invented by Garrett A. Morgan, first used in 1916.
  • Blood banks, made possible by the invention of Dr. Charles Richard Drew in 1940, which allowed plasma to be dehydrated and countless lives saved since.
  • Refrigerators, invented by Frederick M. Jones in 1940, modernized farming and shipping, and led to the introduction of modern-day supermarkets.
  • The automatic oil cup for train parts, invented by Elijah McCoy; his design was so superior to the many knock-offs that engineers ordering them asked for “The Real McCoy” (ok – really, how many of you knew that’s where that term came from?!)
  • The potato chip! Invented by George Crum in 1853, the potato chip industry became a billion dollar business, creating a massive amount of jobs and certainly changed my world.

And let’s highlight some modern-day entrepreneurs of color showcasing the power and potential of diversifying the current state of our nation’s entrepreneurship:

  • Publisher John H. Johnson who started both the Ebony and Jet brands and the first African American to appear on the Forbes 400 list.
  • Financier Melody Hobson of Ariel Investments, which today is the largest minority owned investment firm in the world with nearly $11 billion in assets.
  • Hotelier and sports team owner Sheila Johnson, who was co-founder of BET and the first African American female billionaire.
  • Entrepreneur and investor Daymond John who is founder and CEO of FUBU and a judge on the hit show Shark Tank on ABC.
  • CEO Janice Bryant Howroyd of ACT-1 Group, the nation’s largest black female owned business with more than $1.4 billion in revenue.
  • Earl Robinson, CEO of PowerMoves (disclosure: PowerMoves is a grantee of the Case Foundation), which has backed 100 minority-founded companies, raising $27 million in venture capital and creating more than 350 jobs.
  • Kesha Cash, founder of Impact America, investing in underserved communities.
  • And venture capitalist Erik Moore with five exits under his belt and dozens of investments in companies like

So much history to celebrate. So much to be inspired by. And so much more to do to recognize and realize the full innovation potential of America by leveling the entrepreneurship playing field for all. Connecting social and financial capital to women and entrepreneurs of color who continue to be under-represented and whose success will serve as inspiration to a whole new set of young dreamers looking for role models to whom they can relate. Sadly, today only 3% of venture-backed companies have female CEOs and only 1% have founders of color; Project Diane’s report on the success of African American women in tech is best summarized by Wired as “embarrassing.” Making entrepreneurship more inclusive isn’t about charity or political correctness; it’s about sound business. Research shows that companies in the top quartile for gender, racial and ethnic diversity are more likely to have financial returns above their national industry medians. And in many respects, it’s about restoring the American dream.

The talent, the companies and the opportunities to level the playing field are out there. There just needs to be more intentionality in the discovery and sourcing process. Over the last two days, I’ve seen some of our future nation shapers on stage at PowerMoves Miami launch. Companies like Neurtronic Perpetual Innovations, LISNR, VOO Media Group and Kairos have all each raised more than $5 million with disruptive ideas. Watch out for Virgil, a mobile-first career navigation platform, who today won the Knight Foundation’s Angel Round Pitch Competition, which I had the honor of judging. And please, let’s model the secret sauce of PowerMoves in sourcing successful black female founders – of the 11 (yes, only 11!) black female founders that have raised more than $1 million in outside investment, four of them — Lisa Dyson of Kiverdi, Kellee James of Mercaris, Cheryl Contee of and Jewel Burks of Partpic (disclosure: Partpic is an investment of our founder Steve Case) — are alumna of the PowerMoves model, collectively raising nearly $50 million in capital.

Join us in our crusade to diversify the face of entrepreneurship. Tell us which entrepreneurs of color are on your radar and what’s standing in the way of unleashing their full potential. Share with us on Twitter at @CaseFoundation using #Ent4All.

The Myth of Combat

The Myth of Combat is the third post in the Case Foundation’s Myth of the Entrepreneur series. This series is intended to intentionally examine, and change, the stories our culture tells about entrepreneurship. For more information on the Case Foundation’s approach to the Myth series and Inclusive Entrepreneurship, please check out our introductory piece. We encourage you to join the conversation using #Ent4All on Twitter.

The Myth of the Entrepreneur series is based on research conducted by Michael Chodos, former fellow with the Case Foundation and currently at the Beeck Center for Social Impact & Innovation at Georgetown University, with contributions from Aaron Coleman, former Case Foundation intern.

There’s no denying the natural draw of drama that comes from a good battle, whether in a sport arena, a courtroom or a theatrical stage — we love to see truth, virtue and value emerge from a defining moment of clash and competition. Think: Monday Night Football, Law & Order, Game of Thrones, The Voice, Hamilton.

So, it’s not entirely surprising that the act of proving worth through this type of “trial by combat” has also become prevalent in the entrepreneurial narrative — largely in the form of the ubiquitous pitch competition. Whether part of mainstream pop culture or down the street at our local accelerator, the dozens of pitch competitions that take place every day deliver one clear message: an entrepreneur’s true worth — and a venture’s true likelihood of success — is proven by how they perform at the pitch competition.

The ultimate example of this narrative plays out on the ever-popular reality TV show, Shark Tank. Contestant entrepreneurs appear in front of world-famous investors who hold the promise of tens of thousands or even a couple million in start-up money. They get the added benefit of face time in front of an at-home audience of nearly 10 million, and if your business and pitch sound right — and you can handle the volley of difficult “gotcha” questions from the investors — you can close a deal right then and there and the audience is left thinking your success is guaranteed.

But in reality, “winning” a pitch competition itself is a small and rare moment in most entrepreneurs’ journeys, and an over-celebration of pitch events runs the risk of perpetuating the myth that it is the only pathway to building a successful, sustainable business. Stories of winning pitch competitions do not ground the success narratives of Oprah Winfrey, Mark Zuckerberg, Lucy Peng or Steve Jobs. In fact, many of today’s most celebrated entrepreneurs would probably tell you that they would likely have lost a pitch competition in the earliest days of their companies (check out Brian Chesky’s Medium post on the many rejections he received on early pitches to raise money for AirBnB).

Building, scaling and sustaining a new business requires more than a “winning” pitch. It requires an entire support system — founders, investors, policymakers, consumers and many others — who can offer the long-term support of the entrepreneur’s dogged pursuit to solve the one problem identified as worthy of immense investments of their own time and treasure. Ecosystem builders like Mara Mentors, Forward Cities, PowerMoves and 1776 understand this; they see the pitch and everything else. For those who have concerns that the pitch competition — and the myth that it is the only path to successfully starting a business — may be disadvantaging women entrepreneurs and entrepreneurs of color, innovations on the model are cropping up. Village Capital has introduced a “peer selection model,” and Springboard Enterprises has its “Dolphin Tank” which, in their words “isn’t… a competition for the best idea, it’s about channeling the expertise of the people in the room to provide connections and advice to help entrepreneurs take the next step.” And crowdfunding platforms are proving to be a more successful onramp for women and minority entrepreneurs. Groups and models like these provide entrepreneurs with access to the collaborative networks and connections they’ll need to scale and solve meaningful problems.

Wins and losses, and the learning that comes from both, are inevitable in entrepreneurship. No doubt pitch competitions can be great forums for showcasing entrepreneurial talent, surfacing new ideas, helping entrepreneurs hone in on their value proposition and generating feedback critical to the constant iteration that is part of building a business — and platforms like Shark Tank are tremendously helpful in raising the profile of entrepreneurs and innovators. My colleague Sheila Herrling and I also recently defended the role of pitch competitions in the nonprofit sector.

But as we seek to broaden the narrative around entrepreneurship it is important that we see beyond the excitement and drama that comes from a no holds barred “business death-match,” to the full scope of developing, nurturing and growing a diverse set of entrepreneurs leading sustainable businesses.

Join the conversation on Twitter at #Ent4All and be sure to check out the full Myth of the Entrepreneur series!