On this episode of the podcast, I wanted to share my thoughts, experiences, and insights on how to live the entrepreneur ethos, especially as it relates to women and minority entrepreneurs, especially African-Americans. I’ll also give you some back story as to why I starting writing the book back in 2015 and what entrepreneurs, especially those in the majority, need to do to realize the vision of building a more ethical, inclusive, and resilient world.
Before I get into that, I want to play for you a clip from fellow Blue Wire podcasters, Ricky Smith and Angel Gray over at Random Acts of Podcasting. They are having an honest and candid discussion about race. Take a listen to Episode 28, which is excellent and filled with all sorts of wisdom every person, especially if you’re white, should listen too.
I have been thinking a lot about what it means to be an entrepreneur lately. Part of this reflection stems from how I came to write the book, The Entrepreneur Ethos, and what’s going on right now in the world. Specifically, how COVID-19 has made visible the clear disparity in both equality and equity among minority groups, especially African-Americans.
The original idea for the book came from my late wife Jane, who was a minority woman entrepreneur in the sports PR space. She would tell me story after story of the racism, sexism, and misogyny that she and even the players she worked with, which were almost all minorities and/or females, would deal with constantly. She would routinely get mad at me and say “all the tall white men” rule the world and that she had to work twice as hard to get half as much.
I will never know what it’s like to be discriminated against or systematically oppressed or judged not by the content of my character but by the color of my skin or my sexual orientation. That must be an awful feeling that no one should have to feel or live with ever.
Jane’s experiences are what millions of minority and women entrepreneurs (and people for that matter) face daily. It was a constant and present weight on her and that made her work harder and harder to get ahead.
Her clients saw the same things in their communities. Professional athletes have a unique perspective on the world. On the one hand, they are put on a pedestal for their athletic prowess but on the other, they are not respected for who they are as human beings. This drove all of them to create foundations to help their communities (especially kids) break the cycle of poverty and injustice.
Through helping her and her clients and what I do now through her company JSY PR & Marketing, I have a glimpse into what all those in the majority (mostly white people) should understand and do to go beyond tweets of support and on to action that will make meaningful change. The first lesson I learned was from fellow Blue Wire Podcaster Josh Johnson, former NFL athlete and co-founder of Fam First Family Foundation, based in Oakland, CA.
It’s About Opportunity
Josh co-founded Fam First Family Foundation with another Oakland native and former NFL player Marshawn Lynch. Jane and I worked with them on fundraising as well as programs for the kids they served. One such program was taking kids on field trips to local businesses so they could see what it was like to run a business. The goal was for kids to see what was possible but more importantly, give them the opportunity to see what was possible. Josh often would say that it’s the opportunities that matter the most since almost all of the kids they served did not know what is possible.
I can’t begin to explain the look on some of those kids’ faces when they realized they could be an engineer, scientist, business owner, graphic artist, or whatever. It was like a spark that something other than what they were used to was possible.
Anyone that’s an entrepreneur knows that being an entrepreneur has a lot to do with luck but more importantly, it’s the number of opportunities that ultimately creates the luck that leads to success. Jane, Josh, Marshawn, and now Marcus Peters, understood that and wanted to make sure that the kids they serve have more opportunities.
So if you want to help minority and women entrepreneurs, give them access to opportunities that you would give people that look like you. This is not charity or pity or special treatment like so many people talk about when they say “the best person should get the job” or that “Silicon Valley is a meritocracy”. Both statements are utter lies and frankly said to make those in the majority feel better.
When you give someone an opportunity, it’s as simple as giving them a shot. There is no special favor in that. Any successful entrepreneur worth their salt knows that the reason they are successful has little to do with their skill and more to do with being at the right place and the right time to take advantage of an opportunity presented too them. That’s the secret to all these overnight successes or hot unicorn startups. Don’t get me wrong, those entrepreneurs had to work hard and have some talent but the spark that allowed them to use their talent and work hard was the opportunity.
Silicon Valley is not a meritocracy. It might have been 50 years ago but not now. That’s a lie told by those that have been groomed with status and privilege feel better. Rather, it’s a caste system where if you know the right people, have the right family name or went to the right school, you get in. One has to look no farther than the stat that 1% of VC backed startups are run by black founders (8% are run by women) and 3% of VC’s are black (14% are women).
If you get angry or upset when some tells you to “Check Your Privilege” or don’t understand what that means, then reframe it to “Share Your Privilege.” Not only is that a more positive statement but it does two things. First, it allows you to recognize that you have something to share, and second, sharing allows you to do something, and doing something is the most important thing.
If you want to build a more inclusive entrepreneur community, give minority and women entrepreneurs more opportunities to get funded and give them access to deals to make them successful. Give them training and guidance as well but know that’s not enough. Realize that, like you, they are trying to build a life that completes them and it’s going to be tougher for them until their given equal opportunities to succeed.
This lead me to the next thing I have learned working in PR & Marketing for nonprofits and professional athletes -- encouragement.
Encouragement takes many forms. It can be a coach that rides you to do better, a mentor who gives you sage advice, or a teacher who says you can do it. Not all encouragement is created equal and it can sometimes be frustrating to give words of encouragement that you perceive as “falling on deaf ears.” This is especially true if you are in the majority trying to convince the minority to “do the right thing.”
You being the mentor or coach, may think it’s a noble effort and it is but in reality, your perception is far different than those you are trying to help. It’s not that they don’t want help -- it’s that generations of racism and poverty have made their world one of scarcity and injustice while your world is all about abundance and opportunity. I learned this lesson from NFL nose tackle Dontari Poe, linebacker Deion Jones and their business manager Omar Silliah.
One of the programs I’m the proudest of is Founders Camp. The beginnings of Founders Camp were when I was at 500 startups back in 2015 and Jane did the 500 Challenge (now Founder for a Day) for her client at the time NFL players Steven & Malcolm Smith. That’s where I first met Big Rich and Danielle from Project Level who opened my eyes to challenges that minority kids face. The concept was simple -- get kids and founders together so that both can learn from each other.
Founder for a day is now part of a 3-day Founders Camp that takes local youth and pairs them with local entrepreneurs, right on in Memphis, TN. The local entrepreneurs teach the kids about their company and the kid’s pitch said company to a group of investors on Day 3. The winning team gets a scholarship. It’s a pretty simple concept that gives kids the opportunity to see what it’s like to be a founder and for founders to get insights into how well they can teach kids about their company.
The one critical criterion we try to always adhere to is to pick entrepreneurs that look like the kids. This may seem like not a big deal but it has an amplifying effect on the kids.
When you see yourself in a successful person, you are encouraged that you can do it. It actually makes the message sink in more since instead of some tall white guy saying “you can do it” you have a person that looks like you, talks like you, and has the same life experiences as you showing you it can be done. I cannot overstate the power of this and how a lot of good-intentioned white people miss the mark on this. Don’t get me wrong. There is nothing wrong with mentoring, coaching, and teaching others but it’s also important to realize that it can come off as condescending or insensitive if you don’t have mentors, teachers, and coaches with you that also share the same life experiences as the kids you’re trying to teach. The best example I can think of to explain this is the reaction some get when there hear Black Lives Matter, especially those that want to retort back with “All Lives Matter.”
It’s an asinine, tone-deaf, and uninformed person who thinks that just because someone says Black Lives Matter they don’t also think “All Lives Matter.” It just shows how utterly absorbed the “All Lives Matter” person is in their own bubble of a world. I don’t blame them but they should try and understand what it’s like to deal with the reality of racism, oppression, or the fear that their father, brother, friend or son might get shot or killed.
For me, what Dontari, Deion, Big Rich, Danielle, Josh, Marshawn, Omar, and countless others have taught me is that the real goal is how to make Black Lives Prosper, which as a baseline requires that Black Lives Matter. That’s what all of them are trying to do and I’m honored to help and encourage others to do the same.
So the next time you find yourself upset or offended or wanting to tweet something akin to “All Lives Matter”, stop and reframe it to how you can help Black Lives Prosper. It’s subtle I know but words matter and I think the big goal should be to figure out how to build prosperity, which has to be built upon a more ethical, inclusive, and resilient world.
The last lesson I have learned is something that took me a while to not only recognize but accept. It actually took a middle school student pitching a complex medial device at our last Founders Camp for me to finally realize the luck of my birth.
By Luck of Birth
I must admit that it’s hard to realize that you have privilege when you have it. If you think about that for a second, you’ll realize that even if you don’t see color or race, society does. This gives those that are in the majority an advantage that is hard to see yet is ever-present.
Sure, you say but I have had to work hard for everything I have. No one has given me anything. If I can do it, surely others can pull themselves up by their bootstraps and do what I did. Hard work is all that matters.
That assumes the people you are talking about have the boots to pull up. Far too often, the cycle of poverty and subtle (and not so subtle) racism makes that literally impossible to do.
If by accident of birth, you were born with more food, better schools, and a favorable skin tone, you are by definition privileged through no merit of your own. You got lucky and if you want to see real change in the way we support minority and women entrepreneurs, then you need to realize that by the luck of birth, you have a leg up.
Remember that when you feel like criticizing peaceful protests that are calling out the injustice in the world. Don’t let the violate acts of a few angry and opportunistic people overshadow the root of the problem. That’s just a distracting and frankly lazy argument.
Making the world better starts when the majority realizes that it could have been them protesting in the streets for the opportunity to share their gifts with the world. It’s up to us (as the white majority) to be the change we want to see in the world and help give others the opportunity and encouragement to see the change they want to see in the world. That’s how we get better together.
How You Can Help
There are lots of ways you can help. You can donate your time, talent, or treasure to organizations and programs that encourage minority and women entrepreneurship as well as support equality and justice. Groups like RAKE, Fam 1st Family Foundation, Poe Man’s Dream Foundation, Deion Jones Family Foundation, ACLU, Bail Project, Equal Justice Initiative, Project Level, and The Innocence Project to name just a few. You can also get involved in your local community to see how you can invest in building a better entrepreneur community for everyone.
Special thanks to Ricky Smith and Angel Gray for a thoughtful and enlightening discussion about your experiences. It inspired me to not only share this with my fellow entrepreneurs but also be the change I want to see.