10 business leaders fighting to make the Black experience a permanent part of corporate America

Business Insider
Feb 12 · 11 min read

These entrepreneurs, business and government leaders, and venture capitalists, are working to amplify Black voices across the country.

From left: Naj Austin, Jeff Cherry, DeShuna Spencer, and Obi Omile.
From left: Naj Austin, Jeff Cherry, DeShuna Spencer, and Obi Omile. Photo: Mark Jones; Matter.vc; Naj Austin; Skye Gould/Insider

By Marguerite Ward and Dominic-Madori Davis

This Black History Month seems different from those of recent years.

There’s an overwhelming outcry from the American public, specifically from Black people, people of color, and their allies, to combat systemic racism and enact equity.

In May, video footage of the police killing of George Floyd, a Black man, went viral, sparking an uproar. Business leaders denounced the killing and promised to do their part to effect change. Suddenly there was more attention put on the antiracist work of Black people and people of color, work that’s been going on for decades.

Against this backdrop, Insider teamed up with the National Black Chamber of Commerce — a nonprofit nonpartisan organization dedicated to the economic empowerment of Black people — to highlight 10 people on the front lines of advancing racial equity and inclusion in business.

These Black entrepreneurs, business and government leaders, and venture capitalists are working to lift up Black and brown communities through their work. Insider spoke with them about the work they’re doing, how the Black Lives Matter movement affected them, and their hopes.

Harry Alford is the cofounder of Humble Ventures, a venture-capital company that works with founders from underrepresented backgrounds.

Harry Alford.
Harry Alford. Photo: Sam Hurd

Harry Alford and his team at Humble Ventures have funded more than 50 Black-owned businesses in 2020 alone, some of which include a social network that centers communities of color and a fast-casual restaurant whose mission is to redefine healthy and affordable food for all.

Alford said the Black Lives Matter movement validated his company’s mission and gave him added motivation to keep investing in Black entrepreneurs and entrepreneurs of color. While he is optimistic about 2021, he thinks leaders in the business community will need to keep their focus on advancing racial diversity, equity, and inclusion.

“I don’t believe the problems that surfaced in 2020 will disappear with the shift of administrations,” he said. “We must continue to do the work. We need to listen. We need to learn. We need to speak up when we see injustice.”

Naj Austin is the founder and CEO of Ethel’s Club, an online social and wellness club for people of color and their allies, and Somewhere Good, a digital platform for Black people and people of color.

Naj Austin. Photo: Naj Austin

Naj Austin is an entrepreneur focused on building communities that foster inclusion and growth for people of color and their allies. Originally home to 150 members in Brooklyn, Ethel’s Club has expanded to an online community in the wake of the pandemic, and has opened hubs across the US now serving at least 1,000 people. Her tech platform, Somewhere Good, a social network and marketplace for people of color, will be publicly available in the spring.

Austin said the Black Lives Matter movement brought more people to the communities she’s been working to build for years.

“We had long been doing work centering and celebrating Black voices, so as folks started to look for places to heal, grieve, and talk online, we were ready,” Austin told Insider.

The founder also shared her top advice for anyone looking to start their own business.

“I know how hard it is being a Black founder with the world stacked against you in almost every way,” she said. “My advice is to keep pushing and to lean on one another. If we build alongside one another, we can create a lot of magic in the world.”

André Blackman is a founder and CEO of a recruitment firm advancing representation of people of color in healthcare.

André Blackman. Photo: Courtesy of Jumpstart Foundry

André Blackman is the founder and CEO of Onboard Health, an executive-recruiting company dedicated to building an inclusive future in the healthcare industry. His work focuses on helping talented professionals — including many people of color — get hired at companies building the future of healthcare across a variety of roles, including data science, engineering, and business development.

The pandemic and Black Lives Matter have combined to put systemic racism top of mind for many private and public-sector leaders, especially when it comes inequities in healthcare. This surge in interest gave Blackman and his team a chance to help educate company leaders and lead recruiting efforts to change the face of health and healthcare in the US.

“With many companies who made diversity commitment announcements, invested in equity work and truly took action last year — I’m hoping that we’re able to at least begin to see the direct results of that work from 2020,” he said, adding he was hopeful that companies will continue their DEI efforts in 2021.

Marla Blow is the North American head of Mastercard’s Center of Inclusive Growth.

Marla Blow. Photo: Rick Smith Photography

Marla Blow is the North American Lead in the Center for Inclusive Growth at Mastercard.

Blow and her team has been focused on working with the Community Development Financial Institutions Fund and has teamed up with the Community Reinvestment Fund to help micro and small businesses obtain loans.

Blow and her team at Mastercard have digitized the operations of the nonprofit microfinance organization Grameen America, allowing it to reach over 130,000 women with $1.6 billion in small-business loans, according to Blow.

In response to the killing of George Floyd, she helped spearhead Mastercard’s five-year $500 million commitment to help close the wealth and opportunity gaps in Black communities.

“The horrific murder of George Floyd by the police put a harsh spotlight on the appalling wealth and opportunity gaps faced by Black Americans in the US,” Blow told Insider. “The reality we must confront is a financial system that has systemically disadvantaged and excluded Black communities throughout this country’s history and contributed significantly to the inequality in our society.”

Jeff Cherry is the founder of a startup accelerator and venture fund that invests in companies led by underrepresented entrepreneurs.

Jeff Cherry. Photo: Courtesy of Jeff Cherry

Jeff Cherry is the founder and executive director of the startup accelerator Conscious Venture Lab and the founding managing partner of the Conscious Venture Fund. His work focuses on investing resources and capital in entrepreneurs behind companies focused on making the world a better place.

“Talented people are equally dispersed across society, but opportunities are often limited by race, gender, or unconscious bias that have no bearing on the ability of the entrepreneur or their ideas,” Cherry said.

His work centers on supporting people who have traditionally been left out of the startup ecosystem. Since founding the accelerator in 2013, Cherry has invested more than 50% of the firm’s capital in minority and female founders and has created more than 21 jobs for every $100,000 the firm has invested.

The Black Lives Matter movement has drawn more investors to Cherry’s work, and the work of other VC funds backing Black founders. When Freddie Gray was killed in Baltimore, in 2015, the fund committed to investing in underrepresented founders, Cherry said.

“We committed our work then to investing in more minority founders and being a pathway to create racial equity and generational wealth in minority communities,” he said. “The public execution of George Floyd shocked the nation into action. Action to which we continue to support.”

Gary Johnson works for the New York City Mayor’s office on efforts to drive inclusion in the tech industry.

Gary Johnson. Photo: Courtesy of Gary Johnson

As associate chief technology officer for New York City Mayor Bill De Blasio, Gary Johnson leads NYCx Inclusive Innovation.

NYCx Inclusive Innovation is an urban research and development program that works with entrepreneurs to develop solutions to problems in New York neighborhoods.

For example, one group of founders developed a mental-health program for Latinx youth in underserved communities.

“My mission is to break down the paradigms and silos that exist between underrepresented founders, venture-capital communities, and government innovation,” Johnson said.

In June, Johnson was selected to serve on the mayor’s first task force for racial equity and inclusion. In this role, he helped the city make a $157 million investment in high-speed internet for 600,000 underserved New Yorkers, including 200,000 residents living in public housing.

About $87 million of that investment was redirected from the New York City Police Department’s budget.

Johnson said he thinks the Biden-Harris administration will help spur more economic innovation on the state and local level, especially for marginalized communities.

“There will be an increased demand for entrepreneurs in civic tech and urban innovation, to research, pilot, and rapidly scale solutions that address systemic inequalities, improve quality of life for citizens, and promote an inclusive economic ecosystem,” he said.

Obi Omile is the CEO and cofounder of a software company that helps barbershops manage their businesses.

Obi Omile. Photo: Mark Jones

Obi Omile is the CEO of and cofounder of theCut, a software company that helps local barbershops manage everything from appointment scheduling to client relations.

More than 8,000 barbers use the platform, he says. Since the company launched, in 2016, the app has been downloaded 2 million times and used to book 20 million appointments.

“We’re empowering barbers to become better entrepreneurs and to create the lives they want for themselves,” Omlie told Insider. “Barbers are some of the first business owners that young people meet in communities of color. With theCut, Barbers are able to build stronger businesses and continue to connect and lead within their communities.”

TheCut has also teamed up with barbershops to provide haircuts to students in need, and the company has teamed up with the Kids in Need Foundation to send school supplies to students.

During the pandemic, the company donated more than 5,000 face shields to nurses in New York and Tennessee and helped fundraise for barbershops. The company was affected by the pandemic at first, Omile said, but as states began to open up, it saw an uptick in business.

“Our goal has always been to make barbers’ lives easier,” he said. “In most rooms or conversations people will already have an opinion about you. It’ll be your job to prove them wrong but also to help change the narrative and pave the way for others.”

Rodney Sampson is the executive chairman and CEO of an initiative that provides diversity, equity, and inclusion solutions.

Rodney Sampson. Photo: Venture Beat

Rodney Sampson is the executive chairman and CEO of Opportunity Hub, a holding company committed to building racial equity in the technology, startup, and venture ecosystems. Through several programs, OHUB offers re-skilling, talent acquisition, startup support, fundraising, and DEI solutions to corporations, cities, and colleges.

The program helps everyone from college students to more experienced talent find jobs. It also connects founders with entrepreneurship support programs. Sampson is also a partner of the 100 Black Angels & Allies Fund, which invests in the development of Black tech entrepreneurs.

Speaking to Insider, Sampson said OHUB has sponsored over 1,000 Black, Indigenous, people of color from more than 400 colleges and universities to attend the conference SXSW through its OHUB.SXSW venture.

Last year the company joined forces with Steve Case’s Revolution Fund and Morgan Stanley to create a $2 million fund to invest in Black startups. For Black History Month, OHUB teamed up with UNC-Chapel Hill Kenan Flagler Business School to launch two certificate programs in Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Solutions and Black Technology Ecosystem Investment.

Creating policy and initiatives to help advance economic rights is key to the Black Lives Matter agenda, Sampson said. “Black Tech and Black Lives Matter must be hand in hand in the continuing fight for human, civil, and economic liberty,” he added.

“It is important for big tech and the startup ecosystem to remember that racial equity must be sacrificial rather than performative,” he said.

Black entrepreneurs need to persist through their pain and scale their productivity to be successful, he said.

DeShuna Spencer is the founder of a streaming service that focuses on content made by Black creatives.

DeShuna Spencer. Photo: Matter.vc

DeShuna Spencer is the founder and CEO of kweliTV, a streaming service that focuses on showcasing the work of Black creatives.

Our mission has always been about amplifying and celebrating Black lives — even before the Black uprising that we began seeing last year after the horrific murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and many others before them,” Spencer told Insider.

Kweli means “truth” in the Swahili language and speaks to the company’s mission to “curate content that is an authentic reflection of the global black experience,” Spencer said.

She added that the Black Lives Matter movement has made her more intentional about her work and role as CEO. KweliTV created kweliGIVES, in which it donates 1% of its revenue to nonprofits in the Black community.

Last year the service launched subscriptions and live channels on Comcast Xfinity, Cox, and DistroTV, and for the new year Spencer said the company was looking to explore revenue models and invest more in community building.

“The media plays a huge role in how Black people are perceived,” she said.”While I may not always be able to march in the street, I am using my platform to speak truth to power.”

Stefanie Thomas is an early-stage venture investor at Impact America Fund.

Stefanie Thomas. Photo: Courtesy of Stefanie Thomas

Stefanie Thomas is an early-stage investor at Impact America Fund.

Impact America Fund is a Black female-owned and operated venture fund. About 80% of the CEOs Impact America Fund backs identify as a person of color, and 70% of them are led by a Black person. In October, IAF raised $55 million for a VC fund.

“My passion lies in supporting scrappy entrepreneurs who are figuring out how to leave a footprint on the world along with a financial legacy for their families,” Thomas said.

“I am always looking for companies with high growth potential that are also defining what it means to scale solutions that power a more just and equitable economy.”

Thomas also runs a digital resident program with a focus on infrastructure for the creative economy. She said this past year has brought forth “an unwavering commitment” toward centering Blackness in the nation’s political and social dialogue.

It has become “the standard-bearer of what is fundamental to and inherently valuable for any organization that claims to care about Black Americans,” she added. “Time will tell how long it sustains and if it will extend beyond this moment.”

For more great stories, visit Insider’s homepage.

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