These facts, and their underlying systemic racism, were the basis for a pitch competition launched last year by musician, record producer and entrepreneur Pharrell Williams. his organization, Black ambition, aims to distribute seed capital and mentorship to Black and Latino entrepreneurs with big ideas – and is now back for a second year. In conversation with Fast companysays Williams, that’s because society can’t rely on investors to redress racial differences in the business world — let alone the government, whose policies created the injustices and aren’t acting fast enough to right them.
In 2021, the creative organization of Williams, I am different, brought together partners like Adidas, Chanel and the Visa Foundation to fund and mentor emerging Black and Latino startups. From March 22nd to May 8th, Black Ambition, the 2021 World Changing Ideas winner for Impact Investing, is again accepting applications for pitches from early-stage companies in consumer goods and services, healthcare and technology, with new categories in media and Entertainment and Web3. Companies can win up to $1 million in grants; In a separate category, founders who attend historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) can win up to $100,000.
Williams, who launched the initiative after the summer of 2020 racial justice protests, says he cannot rely on public policy alone to even out inequalities. “That would be nice, but I don’t know if we can wait for the government,” he says, citing slavery and Jim Crow-era laws that legally prohibited black people from accumulating and building wealth the same way , as white people could. He notes that American financial institutions are also rooted in racism, noting that these are the largest today made insurance companies much of their wealth from insuring enslaved people.
Finally, Williams says he’s motivated to continue Black Ambition because of the widespread teaching about structural racism in schools. Many conservative lawmakers have passed Bills Prohibiting Critical Race Theory, which is an opportunity for students to learn about the legal bases for racism ingrained in society. “As a result, some of our other American brothers and sisters don’t really understand why they have the instinct and inclination to exclude us from business opportunities,” he says. “It follows along with the rest of the superstitions and stereotypes created by – I hate to say it – our government.”
Given their relative lack of generational wealth, minority entrepreneurs often need investors the most—yet they are likely to be ignored by venture capitalists. Even well-intentioned VCs often fund those they know and don’t seek relationships with businessmen of color, says Black Ambition CEO Felecia Hatcher. “Sometimes,” she says, “you just have to call things like they are, and it’s just racism.”
Black Ambition made a contribution last year to address these injustices. With prices ranging from $15,000 to $1 million it financed 34 companies, including beauty companies, a maternal health company called Emagine, and a Tulsa-based ed-tech startup called Boddle Learning. According to Hatcher, it was particularly important for Black Ambition to support companies in funding businesses that were based in what was formerly known Black Wall Street. The grand prize winner was Livegistics, a Detroit-based software company whose operating system provides real-time digital records to stakeholders in the construction industry.
This year, alongside mentorship from partners – what Williams calls the “strategic framework” for supporting emerging businesses – there will also be guidance from last year’s winners, Justin Turk of Livegistics and Kadidja Dosso of Dosso Beauty (the winners of the HBCU Preiss), who hold office hours for new applicants.
Aside from the $3.2 million Black Ambition originally invested, last year’s companies have independently raised $40 million since then. Some have also participated in business accelerator programs that they previously had difficulty accessing. Hatcher announces that Livegistics has raised $4 million over the past few weeks while Boddle has raised $2 million, including a portion of Google. Another company, RotorX, which develops drones that can lift up to 150 pounds, has caught the interest of the US military, she says.
In general, “companies are hiring the Wazoo,” Hatcher says, and “are making a massive contribution to the economy and their communities.” According to internal estimates, black and Latino entrepreneurs, if given the same support as their white counterparts, would add an estimated 9 million jobs to the economy. Hatcher hopes these successes will show investors the value of these entrepreneurs, to the point where VCs will worry about missing out on investment.
For Williams, who only describes himself as the “mascot” at this company, the vision is to continue to evolve Black Ambition for years to come and build a true ecosystem of support – as long as the government continues to cling to meaningful change. “Listen, if the government is catching up, that’s amazing because there’s progress,” he says. When dealing with the pandemic recovery, for example, tthe Biden administration has specifically aimed to prioritize underserved ethnic minorities. But Williams believes these measures are slow and not enough to fully correct serious injustices. “Until that happens – no, sir. We just have to keep going.”