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Fundraising Essentials from the Founder of Black Girl Ventures
Addressing a lack of access to wealth or financial resources, an inability to tap into influential networks, and difficulty hiring.
Despite undeniable progress in recent years, the fact remains: Being a woman founder comes with its fair share of challenges.
Whether it’s struggling to secure capital, gain investors’ trust, or finding sustainable ways to navigate the male-dominated world of business with their heads held high, women entrepreneurs face countless hurdles—often, even when they are sitting on an incredible business idea.
Though all women founders may run the risk of facing these difficulties, it’s harder for some women than others. In 2018, just 2.2% of venture capital dollars went to women-led companies. But, when accounting for race, the statistics are even more grim. Black women reportedly receive less than 1% of venture capital, while just 0.4% goes to companies founded by Latinas. For some perspective, while women-led startups raised $1.9 billion in capital in 2017, Latina-led companies raised just $1.36 billion—over the course of the last ten years.
These numbers speak loudly, and are part of the reason why Shelly Bell has committed herself to her current work. Bell is the founder of Black Girl Ventures (BGV), an organization that works to provide access to capital for Black and Brown women entrepreneurs.
Bell's professional background is circuitous; she identifies as a serial entrepreneur and is also a computer scientist, a poet, and a former high school teacher. After starting a successful apparel printing business, MsPrintUSA, where she partnered with big names like Amazon and Google, she began focusing on Black women-made products. In 2016, she founded BGV to help close the gap between Black and Brown-led companies and access to capital. To date, BGV has funded 24 women with no plans to stop.
Bell notes that communities of color tend to experience a lack of generational wealth. This lack of access to resources and opportunity can severely set founders back. “Typically [with] founders who have raised all of this capital or just took off, there’s somebody in that story who took a chance on them—an uncle or somebody who was able to infuse them with cash or give them resources long enough,” Bell says. “With Black Girl Ventures we are the friends and family round for women that come through our competition.”
But access to capital isn’t the only challenge women of color founders face. From Bell’s vantage, the top three challenges, alongside lack of access to wealth or financial resources, is the lack of access to influential networks, and the ability to hire. “This world is all about who you know and what you know. It equals how far you can go,” Bell says, adding that who you know can often outweigh what you know. “A lot of underrepresented founders don’t have people in their networks with high net worths,” this lack of connection to those who dictate economic power can make a huge difference when you’re starting a business.
Bell adds that there can also be hidden cultural setbacks involved when it comes to underrepresented founders. “As a person of color, you’re taught and socialized to work hard, push hard, try hard and grow what you have [and] there’s history involved,” Bell continues, noting that redlining played a huge role in wealth distribution in the United States. “Redlining [meant] you may have never lived near a person who owned a house or had a certain net worth just because of ways that neighborhoods were laid out or transportation was segregated.”
For Bell, the issue of inequity in the entrepreneurial space is a complicated issue with a long and complicated history. This is part of the reason why she has dedicated herself to making a difference for Black and Brown founders through her work with BGV. Supermaker chatted with Bell to gain some insight into her top four tips for women founders of color—though they can certainly help all founders of color—who are running or looking to start a business and secure funding.
“If you’re trying to raise capital just chill,” Bell says, explaining that “chill” can serve as a useful acronym.
C means “cover your own basics.” Bell says a certain amount of building is required before investors are going to want to send money your way. “Investors don’t invest in you to go, they invest in you to grow,” Bell continues. “Nobody wants to invest in a car without wheels [so] if you don’t have anything, you’re pre-revenue, then you’re going to have to find your own way to build.”
H stands for “have your numbers top of mind.” Often, Bell says, people don’t adequately budget for the cost of doing business. “Focus on the cost of doing business,” Bell adds. “Know how much it will take to get a profit, and know how much it’s costing you.”
I stands for “illustrate and demonstrate.” Bell explains that, sometimes, founders’ pitch decks are beautiful but what they say is different than what the founder herself is saying. “You can tell somebody else made that deck,” Bell adds, noting that it can also go the other way around, where the pitch deck isn’t so great but what the founder says is. “Make sure [what the things you say and show] match and make sure you’re executing.”
The double L stands for “look and listen.” Bell says Look means researching, looking at what investors are investing in. “[An] investor is your customer, they are just another type of customer base,” she continued, and having that alignment means it’s easier to get capital and misalignment means you could both be wasting your time.
When it comes to getting money, Bell makes it clear “you’re going to get money from people you know.”
Bell says one’s network is like a linen closet—you don’t always remember that you had that extra blanket until someone comes over to stay the night. “Most of the time you’re within six degrees of who you need,” Bell continues. She advises founders to start by following people on social media, watching what they say, what they take photos of. “A lot of the time they will be speaking on panels, [and] when you walk up you don’t have to be a stranger,” Bell says. “You have an immediate common ground for you to now build off of.”
Similarly, Bell encourages founders not to be afraid to ask for introductions. “You’re more likely to build a relationship if someone else introduces you or is talking about you, so anytime you have champions in your life, you should equip them with the language to speak about what you’re doing.”
People often say we are a combination of those we surround ourselves with, and Bell agrees. She encourages entrepreneurs to identify people who are a few steps in front of them, as well as some who are a long way ahead.
From there, Bell recommends putting together an advisory board of people who are going in a direction you’d like to. Sometimes, these networks can be found in accelerator programs or other entrepreneurial communities, though Bell acknowledges that many accelerator programs aren’t always accessible to women of color founders.
Regardless of where you find them, Bell says a strong advisory board can make all the difference. “Make sure you can ask questions and have them make introductions for you,” Bell says.
Though logistical approaches to securing capital are important, there are internal factors at play, as well; one of them is imposter syndrome.
“There is no easy way to deal with imposter syndrome,” Bell says. But she does believe there are some tools that women founders of color can have in their arsenal, including keeping track of important personal milestones. “Write down your accomplishments, I don’t care if it’s that you made honor roll in the third grade. Write down 100 things and keep a running list,” she adds, noting that every time you accomplish something new you can add it to your list and refer back whenever you need a pick-me-up.
Though Bell admits self care has become a buzzword, she says that it can really look like anything. Including reading books that can help shift your perception of yourself and your capacity (she recommends reading The Four Agreements and A Whole New Mind).
Ultimately, when it comes to starting a successful business as a woman of color, there are undeniable roadblocks, but Bell encourages perseverance and self-confidence. “Don’t spend time worrying about whether your idea is good or bad—spend every available moment trying to find the person who will buy from you.”
Bell adds that a good idea doesn’t necessarily translate into an instant success, just like there are many business ideas that aren’t very good. “Every time you put a straw into a juice box you get splashed with juice. That’s a terrible idea—but we’re still using it because we don’t have a better idea for portable juice,” Bell says.
“Ultimately, don’t worry about whether or not [an idea] is good or bad, find [somebody who will buy it],” Bell concludes. “They may not be in your neighborhood, your family—doesn’t matter. Somebody out there needs what you have.