Introducing the Runway Project

When considering the future of work, consider this hypothetical:

A young entrepreneur wants to start a startup. Brilliant, gifted, and motivated, she is an ideal candidate for starting a business. But for the simple reason of bad luck, whenever she pitches her idea to traditional investors like venture capitalists, they don’t bite. After all, the market for capital is an extremely competitive one, and great ideas led by great people fail to secure funding all the time.

Without true bootstrapping as an option, she decides to pursue another common path to secure funding for her capital intensive idea– asking family and friends to invest. Once again though, a bad stroke of luck occurs. It turns out that her parents spent the last of their savings (and even took out loans) helping her receive a top tier college education. All of her friends are too young to have any money either.

What if this last let-down wasn’t just bad luck? What if it was the manifestation of a deeper trend?

One detail I left out about our model entrepreneur is that she is African American. And as much as I would like for this aspect to be irrelevant to her quest for funding, it turns out that her race might be the single most important thing standing in between her and her startup dreams.

A straightforward statistic explains how this might be the case. Looking at recent Pew Research wealth gap trends we see that in 2013 the accessible assets of black individuals is, on average, around $11k while white individuals have an average of $142k. Thus simply because she is black, our entrepreneur’s chance of finding money through the medium of friends friends/family is significantly lower than her white counterparts. It’s a fundamentally different challenge that she faces.

One more thing to note is that this story is not actually hypothetical — it’s the path to her first business that Jessica Norwood, founder of the recently formed Runway Project, experienced. Driven by this personal experience, and recognizing similar experiences in countless African American peers, Jessica started the project to hone in on this singular question:

How do African American entrepreneurs access seed and pre-seed friends and family capital?

Her hope was that by answering this question, other complex issues regarding the infrastructure for African American wealth creation could be untangled. The ‘friends and family capital’ question was the thread dangling from a spool that others hadn’t had the thought to pull at yet.

Knowing that she would need to assemble a diversely talented and experienced team to tackle the project, Jessica sought out Kevin Doyle Jones, founder of SOCAP and Neighborhood Economics (among other things), to help her build this team. Slowly, over the course of several months, the braintrust for the project grew to be a sort of justice league of social change. In the group were CEOs, PhDs, Authors, Leaders, all brought together by their shared commitment towards solving this problem. This past April we all met in New York for a summit to really get the project off the ground.

What is the ultimate goal of this work? There are many ways to think about the impact that Jessica and company are trying to make. At a higher level, our goals are the similar to any project at the intersection of race and economics — equity and opportunity for all. But sometimes these noble goals are too stratospheric. They lack a concrete rallying point. After all, this project from the start is based on taking a complex, messy issue, and tackling it from a clear, graspable angle.

Therefore one helpful way might be to frame this project as an issue of job creation. Job creation is often framed as product of bolstering preexisting industry. But job creation can also come from supporting new startup ventures. Whether it’s a founder securing funding (and therefore income) for themselves, or providing it for new hires, startups can be a novel and overlooked source of job creation in the US. Especially when addressing racial fault lines is as divisive an issue as ever, framing this project around the truly bipartisan goal of job creation could be a helpful anchoring point for some.

How are we going about doing this? Right now a smaller task group is working on designing three pilot projects in Baltimore, Washington D.C., and Cincinnati. The Washington and Baltimore pilots are being partially housed in their city’s respective Impact Hubs (Rodney Foxworth in Baltimore and Kevin Jones in DC). In DC, Jason Town’s recently-announced Groundwork accelerator will also be joining the mix. Finally, in Cincinnati, MORTAR is acting a home base with the help of Derrick Braziel. As you can probably see, a defining characteristic of this project is not a singular person or organization, but the greater sum of all these parts spun together.

In each of the cities “bridge-builders” from the area, versed in its unique cultural constraints, will be supported to carry out different capacity building programs. This role would look not unlike what someone like Rodney already does in Baltimore, or what Derrick does in Cincinnati. Jessica was cautious to predict the exact activities of this player though. The role needed to be slightly open ended, as to allow for site-specific flexibility. “You can’t go into these places already thinking you know what the people there will need,” she says about the future pilots.

We’re also currently working on setting up a few communications assets — a website with basic information about the project, social media handles, a logo … I’ll be updating this post with all of that information as soon as it’s ready.

In the meantime, if you want to learn more about the project, collaborate, or just chat, feel free to reach out to me in the comments or send me an email at bryan@sphaera.world.

Note: This post was written as a response to Ross Baird & Village Capital’s “Future of Work” prompt.