Making the economy work for Black entrepreneurs

Funding for Black-owned startups needs to grow. That's just the start.

Making the economy work for Black entrepreneurs

"There is no quick fix to close the racial wealth and opportunity gaps, but there are many ways companies can help," said Mastercard's Michael Froman.

Photo: DigitalVision/Getty Images

Michael Froman is the vice chairman and president of Strategic Growth for Mastercard.

When Tanya Van Court's daughter shared her 9th birthday wish list — a bike and an investment account — Tanya had a moment of inspiration. She wondered whether helping more kids get excited about saving for goals and learning simple financial principles could help them build a pathway to financial security. With a goal of reaching every kid in America, she founded Goalsetter, a savings and financial literacy app for kids. Last month, Tanya brought in backers including NBA stars Kevin Durant and Chris Paul, raising $3.9 million in seed funding.

Reaching this milestone is a testament to Tanya's perseverance and resilience as she, like many other Black women founders, struggle to find institutional investors. Our financial system is simply not set up to help Black entrepreneurs launch a business. Most new businesses are initially funded from savings and home equity, but the persistent racial wealth gap in our country places Black would-be entrepreneurs at a dramatic disadvantage since many don't have those assets available. On top of that, of the approximately $625 billion in venture capital invested since 2015, only around $15 billion went to Black and Latinx founders; that's just 2.4% of funding. For Black women founders specifically, the numbers plunge to 0.27% of funding over the past two years.

This is not an issue that will resolve itself; we need to be deliberate about opening doors and bringing down barriers, not just to solve for one Black or minority-owned business at a time, but to rebuild a system that gives everyone a chance. Capitalism has lifted millions of people out of poverty and improved their quality of life, but it has also left many behind. As we now rebuild our national economy, we need to ensure future growth is inclusive, and that small businesses — the backbone of our economy — recover in a way that lifts up promising Black-owned startups at every point in their journey.

There is no quick fix to close the racial wealth and opportunity gaps, but there are many ways companies can help. Here are four insights we've learned from years of working with startups and community organizations.

Invest in the network. Startups like Oakland-based CNote are working to channel capital to underserved micro and small businesses through a vast network of Black-owned banks, minority credit unions and community development financial institutions that have direct access to many local communities. However, these market innovators are hampered by complex governance requirements that Fortune 200 companies have to put in place before they will do business. We need to make it easier for new players like CNote to pass procurement hurdles and get into the pipeline so they can grow. By helping them on the back end, it opens them up to partnering with large corporates from all across the country.

Open up access to markets. For those Black-owned businesses that do secure a first round of funding, their growth trajectory often slows when it comes to entering new markets. A startup's ability to scale increases exponentially when larger companies with trusted relationships not only make introductions to its partners but also offer the startup's services as part of a proposed solution to customers. This is an approach that has helped MoCaFi, a New York-based, Black-owned startup that offers banking services to lower- and moderate-income communities, to start working with local city leaders in new markets. This work can be mutually beneficial for corporations: The ability to deliver effective support to underserved communities increases when the right partners with the right solutions are brought to the table.

Digitizing access to capital. Black entrepreneurs are being denied or given smaller bank loans nearly twice the rate of their white peers — 54% compared to 30%, respectively. Microfinance institutions and CDFIs have stepped in to fill this void, supporting applications for those previously denied loans. However, the demand exceeds the resources and tools available, and getting funds to those who need it urgently can be challenging. New digital tools can be transformative in this situation if we could accelerate access for these organizations. Many rely on slow paper-based processes, but through the digitization of both applications and distribution of loans, CDFIs like the Community Reinvestment Fund and micro-finance institutions like Grameen America have been able to process requests faster, more securely and for more businesses, throughout the pandemic.

Going all in. Finally, one of the most important lessons we've learned is that the programs and partnerships used to tackle these issues can't be just for a moment in time or a single intervention. For maximum impact, companies need to be all in with the full breadth of their assets — funding, product pilots, supplier practices, consulting services, data insights — as this is how to drive a catalytic impact and create a more sustainable, inclusive digital economy.

As more businesses, CEOs, corporate treasurers and venture capitalists join in this effort, we can collectively help bridge that wealth and opportunity gap. Startups can't scale up if they aren't given that first chance.

As we are reminded during this Black History Month, the problems of racial economic disparity have existed for too long, and although the challenge seems daunting, we are confident that with perseverance we can successfully build a more just and equitable economy. Our early progress matters, and we should make every effort to build on the first steps by coming together across sectors and organizations so that amazing ideas like Tanya's are embraced from the outset.

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