Pharrell’s incubator for Black-owned companies is back

Those 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 funding and mentorship to black and Latino entrepreneurs with big ideas — and it’s now back for a second year. In an interview with Fast Company, Williams says this is because society cannot depend on investors to eliminate racial inequalities in the business world, let alone the government, whose policies have created the inequality and which is not acting fast enough to correct them.

In 2021 Williams’ creative organization, I Am Other, brought together partners such as Adidas, Chanel and the Visa Foundation to help fund and mentor budding black and Latino startups. From March 22 to May 8, Black Ambition, the winner of World Changing Ideas 2021 for Impact Investing, is again accepting applications for pitches from startup companies in consumer products and services, healthcare and technology, with new categories in media and entertainment and Web3. Businesses can win up to $1 million in funding; 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 of racial equality protests, says he cannot rely on public policy alone to eliminate inequalities. “That would be nice, but I don’t know if we can wait for the government,” he says, referring to slavery and Jim Crow-era laws that legally prohibited black people from accumulating and building wealth in the same way. as whites. He notes that American financial institutions are also rooted in racism, pointing out that today’s largest insurance companies made much of their wealth insuring enslaved people.

Finally, Williams says he is motivated to continue Black Ambition because of the widespread backlash against teaching structural racism in schools. Many conservative state legislators have passed bills banning critical race theory, providing an opportunity for students to learn about the legal bases for the racism embedded in society. “What that leads to is that some of our other American brothers and sisters don’t really understand why they have the instincts and inclinations to leave us out of business opportunities,” he says. “It follows along with the rest of the superstitions and stereotypes created by — I hate to say it — our government.”

Felecia Hatcher, CEO of Black Ambition [Photo: Spotlight Studios USA]Given their relative lack of generational wealth, minority entrepreneurs often need investors the most, but they are likely to be ignored by venture capitalists. Even well-meaning VCs often fund who they know and don’t seek relationships with people of color in business, said Felecia Hatcher, CEO of Black Ambition. “Sometimes,” she says, “you just have to call a spade a spade, and it’s just downright racism.”

Black Ambition made a dent in tackling those inequalities last year. With prices ranging from $15,000 to $1 million, it funded 34 companies, including beauty companies, a parent company called Emagine, and an ed-tech startup called Boddle Learning, based in Tulsa. It was especially important, Hatcher says, for Black Ambition to help fund businesses in what used to be known as Black Wall Street. The grand prize winner was Livegistics, a Detroit-based software company whose operating system provides real-time digital records to construction industry stakeholders.

In addition to the mentorship of the partners – what Williams calls the “strategic scaffolding” to support emerging companies – there will also be mentorship this year from last year’s winners Justin Turk of Livegistics and Kadidja Dosso of Dosso Beauty (who won the HBCU award), which hold office hours for new applicants.

Aside from the $3.2 million that Black Ambition initially invested, last year’s companies have since independently raised $40 million. Some have also started business accelerator programs, which they struggled to access beforehand. Hatcher reveals that Livegistics has raised $4 million in recent weeks, while Boddle has raised $2 million, including part of Google. Another company, RotorX, which develops drones to lift up to 150 pounds, has sparked interest among the US military, she says.

In general, the companies “employ the wazoo,” Hatcher says, and “make a huge contribution to the economy and their communities.” According to internal estimates, if black and Latino entrepreneurs would receive the same support as their white colleagues, they 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 fear missing out on investments.

For Williams, who simply calls himself a “mascot” in this venture, the vision is to evolve Black Ambition over the next few years and build a true ecosystem of support — as long as government continues to drag its feet on meaningful change. “Listen, if the government is catching up, it’s amazing because some progress has been made,” he says. For example, in tackling pandemic recovery, the Biden administration has made explicit efforts to prioritize disadvantaged racial minorities. But Williams finds that action slow and not enough to fully correct serious inequalities. ‘Until that happens—no, sir. We just have to keep going.”

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