Morgan DeBaun is founder and CEO of Blavity Inc. The opinions expressed in this commentary are her own.
Innovators and entrepreneurs in the Black community have long sought opportunities to create businesses that would lead to their own financial stability and wealth creation for generations to come, but they have historically encountered one hurdle after another.
During the first quarter of the 20th century, an entire Black community thrived in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Known as Black Wall Street, the community was home to dozens of Black entrepreneurs and professionals. But 100 years ago, that thriving community was burned and destroyed by an angry mob of White people during the Tulsa race massacre. The impact of this (along with similar incidents throughout the country) was not only felt immediately, but it has had a prolonged impact as Black Americans were robbed of the opportunity to build generational wealth and the financial resources needed to reinvest in their schools, businesses and communities.
While conversations around diversity and racial equity have been in the spotlight over the past year, the shadows that have been cast for so many decades are not easily erased. When reflecting on the opportunities that once existed for Black entrepreneurs, a powerful message becomes apparent for business leaders today: They need to support Black entrepreneurs in order to help create sustainable and successful communities that will, in turn, add strength to the fabric of our economy.
Here’s how business leaders can help the next generation of Black innovators and entrepreneurs to succeed.
Understand racial equity is a financial and global business imperative, not just a moral one
If companies focus on building more diverse leadership teams, it will allow them to ultimately make better decisions that enable them to expand the value of their enterprises. According to the US Census Bureau, in 2020 nearly four in 10 Americans identified with a race or ethnic group other than White. And the younger generation is increasingly multicultural, digital natives who care deeply about equity. Understanding and serving these communities will be imperative for any business to succeed.
Appreciate that not all founders or job candidates have the same story
Black entrepreneurs more frequently lack access to key resources while having a smaller financial safety net to rely on when their businesses face obstacles.
So when evaluating a pitch or metrics from a Black founder, it’s critical for investors to consider how different backgrounds bring unique perspectives and experiences than traditional Silicon Valley-based or Ivy league graduates. Investors must also resist the urge to “pattern-match” Black founders against non-Black founders, as that approach is riddled with bias. Pattern-matching is an informal system Silicon Valley investors use to evaluate startups and entrepreneurs based on companies or founder personality types that have been successful. But innovation isn’t based on one formulaic approach. They must dig deeper, step out of their comfort zone and embrace diversity as an asset, not a risk.
The above also holds true for those business leaders looking to recruit more Black employees and more Black talent. They need to step away from the algorithmic approach of hiring and look at what will add value to their teams in the form of new, fresh and strategic thinking.
Evaluate your equity practices in purchasing and suppliers
Business leaders can also advance equity for Black entrepreneurs by diversifying their purchasing and supplier programs. As an operator of a media business, I’ve seen firsthand how even well-intentioned organizations fall short, especially when it comes to advertising. According to a recent Nielsen report, just 21% of an $83 billion advertising market was focused on Black consumers in 2018.
What’s more, throughout the second half of 2020, 15% to 30% of Blavity Inc.’s content was labeled “not brand safe” by several ad agencies and some of our clients because of keywords in our articles like “police,” “race,” “Trump,” and “brutality.” As a result, these articles could only be published without ads running adjacent to or within the content. As you can imagine, this dynamic exacerbates the cycle where content for Black audiences isn’t incentivized or promoted because it is deemed not as lucrative.
Business leaders must actively rethink their own equitable business practices, as well as those of their partners and subcontractors, to ensure that economic incentives align with the ability of Black businesses to create real change and innovation.
Build a board and an HR team that aligns with your company’s values
When working with larger companies, I often hear executives suggest that they don’t hire Black managers and directors because they can’t find any qualified candidates. This is one of the primary reasons I created the AfroTech conference — to bring together Black entrepreneurs, venture capitalists, software engineers and marketers to collaborate on projects, connect with recruiters and find resources to grow their own businesses. Moving toward true racial equity and inclusion needs to start at the top and with the decision makers in an organization. It’s simply not enough to have a couple of Black employees or Black employee groups within an organization.
Having more diverse decision makers to help deliver a more authentic message and approach will be key for businesses to survive and succeed in the market. Just as we’ve seen with the conversation around women in leadership and board roles, Black professionals need a seat at the table to drive this change and enable organizations to succeed.