Entrepreneur communities often lack inclusivity and diversity, preventing access to critical resources for women, people of color, and those from lower income backgrounds. Designing programs around the needs and characteristics of historically underserved and under-resourced entrepreneurs can strengthen social enterprise ecosystems, increase community engagement, and promote economic development.

"[We’re] looking to close the entrepreneurial divide​ where we have often marginalized young black men [and now women] on the sidelines watching the startup parade go by. We want them to be empowered through a robust, accelerated, progressive and disciplined approach to venture creation and deployment,”

— Henry Rock, executive director and founder, City Startup Labs

The Issue:

The “face” of entrepreneurship, especially in hubs of innovation like Silicon Valley, often does not include entrepreneurs of color, specifically African American millennials. Their exclusion from existing hubs means that the funding, networks, and support systems that are critical to the success of an entrepreneur are missing.

The Solution:

City Startup Labs (CSL), a Charlotte-based organization, specifically addressed the need to create space for a new class of young, black male entrepreneurs. The organization has provided 4 modules through which 18-to-34-year-old black male entrepreneurs learn how to research, plan, launch, and operate their own ventures. The first of the 3 modules are in the form of a 16-week accelerator. The accelerator culminates in a formal, juried pitch competition attended by early-stage seed investors, the local business community, and the general public. The final module has been a 6 month incubator, where the ideas chosen at the pitch, can be brought to market. Aside from the importance of cultural relevancy, the CSL’s approach is unique in that it encourages an entrepreneurial mindset and critical thinking with a population where the stakes are high, where there are few role models, and few “safety net” mechanisms to support taking risks. The programming takes into account that many of its entrepreneurs come with different backgrounds and experiences and often work multiple jobs to support themselves. These factors can be real hurdles and barriers to success. “Rock was very hard on us, and at times I didn’t understand why,” explained Jarron Thomas, a CSL graduate, said. “But he really understood what was at stake. He understood that it was imperative that we were successful. He understood how underrepresented we are in the entrepreneurial community.”

The Impact:

Nearly 50 young entrepreneurs have graduated from the City Startup Labs program since 2014 and the impact can be felt beyond new business launches alone. For example, Tajze Johnson, one of the winners of City Startup Labs’ 2014 BizPlan and Pitch competition, for a personal shopping service for the elderly and infirmed, has since started a medical supply company. Furthermore, as a local store manager for AutoZone, he has taken two separate stores from the bottom of the market, to #1 in the district in sales and Top 10 in the country. “I owe a great deal of my success to what I learned in the City Startup Labs program,” stated Johnson. CSL is now expanding the program to include young black women, as well as an initiative to address returning citizens (formerly incarcerated).

How it applies to your city:

Cities should be proactive about focusing on inclusive entrepreneurship, working with and in communities to develop resources that support entrepreneurs from historically underrepresented groups. These resources must aim to not only convene entrepreneurs from a similar background, but also break down the systemic and psychological barriers specific to minority entrepreneurs. Enablers and policymakers in your city should be mindful to understand the specific needs of underserved communities and the barriers to accessing existing resources.