From Richmond to Harvard: Cultivating Entrepreneurship Through Community
My passion for entrepreneurship did not begin with a grandiose tech idea. Instead it began by recognizing inequity in my hometown. I grew up in Richmond, Virginia, and I saw how the effects of inequity between wealthy and poor populations caused long-term harm, especially in terms of financial literacy. A friend and I decided to make an impact by designing a financial literacy curriculum for kids of color in low-income communities. We managed to teach this curriculum in homeless shelters and after school programs. And without really knowing it, I found myself embarking on my first entrepreneurial journey.
Today, my passion has driven me to become a student at Harvard University, where I study economics, history, and have a couple of cool internships under my belt. My decision to major in economics was intentional and very much spurred by my desire to create opportunities for economic empowerment for underrepresented and low-income populations. At Harvard, I have joined groups that have taught me the importance of innovation, tech, and finance and allowed me opportunities to write myself and people like me into the future. I am now the COO of BLK Capital Management, a black-owned, student-run hedge fund with $100,000 of assets under management. We’ve just had our fall Stock Pitch Competition at Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley, two of our sponsor firms. BLK has given me, and so many black students across the country, the practical quantitative skills to prepare us for competitive positions in the financial services industry. And they have taken it a step further by creating an intentional community of supportive peers, who have given me the confidence to enter into a field where being black is nowhere near the norm.
As a sophomore now, I have become curious about the steps that others in the entrepreneurship space have taken to bring intentional diversity and inclusion to their workplaces and industries. To understand how this works for young professionals joining companies and the organizers of those programs, I reached out to Harvard Alumni at various institutions.
To start, I reached out to Isaiah Wellington-Lynn, founder of Redefining Boundaries, a fellowship designed to reimagine what it means to belong in tech as a black person. Like BLK, Redefining Boundaries focuses on both the resources participants need, and building a strong, meaningful community to support them. They have chosen to focus on this exclusively, because the issues people of color in the tech industry face not only include problems related to capital but also those related to representation and community. It’s tough to identify how you can achieve something, or even that it’s an option for you, if “there are hardly any people who we can emulate or aspire to. Across all levels: engineers, designers, project managers, at entry level all the way to directors, co-founders and investors.” To address the issue of representation, Redefining Boundaries worked to cultivate and connect with black leaders across industries and professions. “This materialized in us meeting with partners and principals at Google Ventures, to meeting engineers and designers at companies like Pinterest and Airbnb and Facebook. We tried to cover the spectrum of people who we felt could offer representation of people we need to get to the next level.” Meeting with these professionals with whom the tech fellows can identify enables the participants to advance their ideas and skills through new connections, but also provides motivation and assurance that they can succeed.
In terms of gaining access to capital, Isaiah noted that often the problem is rooted in “not knowing how to access that capital or feeling like it’s not for us. Capital exists, and we don’t necessarily need to go to corporate jobs straight out of college to feel like we have the resources or reserves to launch our own company. If we have something we want to pursue, we should be inspired to pursue it straightaway, not wait to have the capital.” Isiah reiterated something I’ve come to understand more and more on my journey to understand entrepreneurship: the importance of community. For Isaiah, “This is the most exciting and most challenging part. In terms of building community, [we] are very intentional about having diversity within the black diaspora. That involved demographically having students who come from wealthier backgrounds and some who come from less fortunate backgrounds, etc. [We pursue diversity] in terms of location: we had students from across the US and UK, and in terms of gender, we had a 60–40 split (men -women).” Ultimately, through all of their efforts, they sought to create “a safe place for sharing authentic viewpoints.”
I wanted to know if that experience would translate in large financial services organizations. How do they provide an intentional sense of community and diversity? I spoke to Harvard Alumnus Christopher Egi, an analyst in the Special Situations Group at Goldman Sachs. He described how joining a network for black employees at the firm helped him. “Coming to Goldman sophomore summer, I had no clue what I was doing or how the firm operated at all. Joining and participating in the Black Network provided a better understanding of the firm, connections to employees around Goldman and career guidance. I met other black professionals who were facing similar situations, and we were introduced to senior leaders at the firm to look up to. I realized that not only are there people like me at Goldman, but they were able to succeed. And [you are] encouraged to understand that when you go to Goldman, there will be advice, training and mentorship that make it possible for individuals like you to succeed. Black employees […] actively recruit from minority groups on campuses, meet with people, and provide a version of Goldman that’s relatable for those who may not know much about finance.”
During my interview with Chris, I couldn’t help but think how slow progress feels sometimes. In Goldman’s case, although the firm promoted its highest percentage of black partners ever this year, the firm still has work to do to improve representation of its most senior leadership. I asked Chris what motivated him to keep pushing for diversity within the firm? He responded, “You hope that if someone opens the door for me, I’ll open it for ten other people and pay it forward and inspire someone to do the same thing.” Simply put, “Having more black people in finance is how we can get more black people in finance.” Chris is optimistic about the future, but he knows this is just the beginning, “People are beginning to generally see that there is a benefit to be had [from diversity].”
To round out my understanding of how to create intentional diversity and inclusion in entrepreneurship, I asked Jessica Li, a founder fellow for Rough Draft Ventures (RDV), the student branch of the venture capital firm General Catalyst. As a member of the program, I was grateful for the diversity in the group, so I had to ask how Jessica was able to achieve this. “If you go through your own network, groups on campus have a referral process with a natural bias towards friends or people they know. If groups are dominated by people who are not of color and women, they keep attracting friends they know. I don’t know if it’s intentional, but they’re biased towards people they’re already friends with, likely [people who are] similar to you in thought and demographics. By opening [the application] up to everyone, not just me thinking who is good for this, we are equalizing the playing field.”
For students who grow up with a strong network of entrepreneurial people, this process works fine. But for students trying to use college as a tool to break into the entrepreneurial space, these requirements of niche networks and knowledge act as a major hindrance. “Apps for investment funds and business groups are how much do you already know about finance; if you come from an underrepresented group, you don’t know, maybe. Not because you’re not smart or motivated, but no one told you.” This type of application process is biased and “punishes poorer people and underrepresented people, which continues the problem. We are not looking for venture capital experience or startup experience. Did you take the initiative to reach out and meet and were you excited?” RDV focuses on creating a more holistic application process, so that it is more focused on who people are and how they think instead of who they are supposed to be already. Jessica noted that by gaining more diverse candidates at the start, RDV is able to continue to foster the diversity of the group. “Many people have people recommend people that they knew. These people were diverse, so they know people who are diverse and have energy and ideas. We make it more accessible and focus on the right attributes: the equalizers.” While economic inequity is structural, when individuals like Jess take the personal initiative to actively strive for and achieve diversity, real change is made. For me, Jess’ actions meant I learned about entrepreneurship in an environment that was more conducive to proposing and accepting diverse ideas: a practice which will make me a better leader as I pursue my own ventures.
Armed with these new insights into how to effectively foster diversity in entrepreneurial spaces, from tech and startups to large financial services organizations like Goldman Sachs, I feel ready to return home and make an impact. For each legacy of injustice, for each economic opportunity lacking in a poor neighborhood, there is an Isaiah, building colorful communities in traditionally closed-off spaces. There is a Chris, taking the time to provide guidance to me, an incoming black female analyst in investment banking — a known white-boys’ club. There is a Jess, taking it upon herself to give students of all backgrounds the resources to become an entrepreneur. And together, they’ve helped form a Naomi, a young black woman developing the skills to go back home and join the fight to end injustice with innovative and diverse solutions.