#StartupsEverywhere Profile: Shelly Bell, Founder, Black Girl Ventures
This profile is part of #StartupsEverywhere, an ongoing series highlighting startup leaders in ecosystems across the country. This interview has been edited for length, content, and clarity.
Building New Capital in the Nation's Capitol
We met with Shelly Bell, founder of Black Girl Ventures (BGV), to discuss how she is working to change ecosystems across the US. In 2017, only 17 percent of startups reported having a female founder and many of those female founders struggle when accessing capital. Shelly and her team are working to find creative place-based solutions to dissolve the race and gender gap in access to capital. Policy makers have looked at crowdfunding a solution to this issue, but more work has to be done. With D.C. as Shelly’s homebase, she hopes to expand BGV to other ecosystems across the nation to support underrepresented communities.
Tell me about you and BGV.
I am an advocate for women in entrepreneurship. I am the founder of BGV which aims to increase access to capital for brown and black female founders. BGV's mission is to develop/operate a framework for increasing the number of revenue generating businesses led by women of color entrepreneurs.
What is BGV’s signature program?
BGV Pitch is BGV’s signature event, mixing crowdfunding and pitch competitions to increase community engagement in entrepreneurship while creating access to capital for women. We raise money at the door to create our “vision fund”. Black and brown women pitch their ideas.
What makes us different from typical pitch event is there are no judges. The community raises the money, asks the questions and votes for the winner. One woman winner walks away with seed funding for her business.
In addition to their winnings, winners receive a consultation with an accountant, a lawyer and other wrap-around services. We are going to start meetings with a bookkeeper and a session on grant writing soon.
What’s your personal role in the startup ecosystem?
I’m working create access to capital for black and brown women. Black women start businesses at six times the national average, yet we receive less than one percent of venture capital.
It’s a real problem. I think we should look at what other industries are doing to include women as an example to solve our problem. We can look at museum collections - artwork by women only makes up three to five percent of major permanent collections in the US and Europe (National Museum of Women of the Arts). There is less opportunity for women. But it’s increasing and we should look at the systemic changes to do so.
When people are looking for data, it is hard. If it has not happened yet, how do we show that result? We do not have evidence from black or brown founders exiting major companies, yet. We need more investment, so we can have more data on failures.
What I always say is that you have to go from something to something. In today’s culture, everyone is into “started from nothing to go to something”. People are way more attached to these stories of starting from the bottom. But let’s start by doing something. BGV raises about $1,500 to $2,000 per event. Founders get this money with no strings attached - similar to a grant. It helps to keep their momentum going.
Do you feel D.C. is receptive to your efforts as an ecosystem? Is there a difference between Baltimore and Philadelphia?
D.C. was ready for us. I have done community building work in the ecosystem before. But It’s about the way you enter the city. It’s about making partnerships.
We went to Baltimore because of one of the women who pitched in D.C. She was passionate about the project. Baltimore does not necessarily like outsiders. It is a lot more work to put together without someone to help shepard the process. Check us out in Baltimore on October 18.
We are headed to Philadelphia for the first time this year. To get started, we had a day of meetings with all parts of the ecosystem. We wanted to make sure the ecosystem needed it.
You want to walk into a really good situation and by taking the time to meet, you develop a level of respect for the local ecosystem. Our first event will be July 19!
What do you think about when you are expanding?
You have to think about how to enter to an ecosystem. It’s about building levels of trust. For bigger companies, they can just roll in, host a major pitch contest and leave. For smaller companies who are make an impact on minorities, you have to start smaller. We need to make it accessible. We have been asked to go New Orleans, North Carolina, Memphis and more. I’ve been thinking about if we should break it into sections - midwest, east coast.
What keeps you going?
When we see the effect that we have, I remember that’s why I do all this work. It may be the first win someone gets; it might not be their only win. We have started to get this pressure to do more. However, I’ve been keen on mastering what we are doing first.
I want to teach people how to use this method to serve their own communities. It goes back to the expression, “give a man a fish and you feed him for a day; teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime”. I want to make this a solution that anyone can use to solve issues in their own ecosystem. It can apply to any underrepresented community.
I want people to think about how they can serve as a cultural translator. I am a cultural translator. There are people who need help, but culturally, are not accustomed to asking for help. On the other hand, there are people who want to help but do not know where to help. My goal is to get these people to speak the same language.
What is the biggest challenge that you still face?
Being able to hire people. This brings us back to access to capital. Everyone needs money, but you need to know what you are going to do with it. I would hire more staff; right now, there are only three of us. In order to scale, we need people who understand fundraising and development. We need people with specializations.
How involved are your government representatives in your effort?
The government is an important part of the ecosystem. In Philadelphia, in order to get started, we met with StartupPHL. In D.C., we work closely with the Department of Small and Local Business. In fact, this year we are going to host a pitch competition with them.
From a policy perspective, do you have any wishlist items for your startup ecosystem?
My pie in the sky wishlist item is to give companies that are black/brown-owned non-profit status for first two years. This way, they can apply for grants like a non-profit. Another wishlist item to allow government workers to spend 20 percent of their time on a side project, like some private businesses do. The time can be spent doing anything, but it has to be spent helping black and brown minorities grow and scale their businesses. This contributes to the local ecosystem, from taxes to employment.
Engine works to ensure that policymakers look for insight from the startup ecosystem when they are considering programs and legislation that affect entrepreneurs. Together, our voice is louder and more effective. Many of our lawmakers do not have first-hand experience with the country's thriving startup ecosystem, so it’s our job to amplify that perspective. To nominate a person, company, or organization to be featured in our #StartupsEverywhere series, email firstname.lastname@example.org. Give us your feedback here.