WORKING THE DREAM AND THE ENTREPRENEURIAL STRUGGLE

By Sagashus Levingston and Amy Gannon | Photographed by Hillary Schave

Entrepreneurship—it captures the imagination of people across race, class and gender, and, for many, it’s a pathway to the American Dream.

But for some groups, particularly women of color, grabbing onto that dream still has its limitations.

Women own 38 percent of all businesses, a five-fold increase since 2007, according to the 2016 State of Women-Owned Businesses Report. The number of minority-women-owned firms also increased, by three times that of all women-owned firms, the report says; in fact, they are the fastest-growing group of entrepreneurs.

And, according to Forbes, businesses owned by black women generate $44 billion in revenue a year.

The real revelation, however, comes in learning about how little funding black women receive for their startups. In the tech field, for example, a Project DIANE report disclosed that from 2012 to 2014 black women in tech had received only .2 percent of all venture funding. On average, white men received $1.3 million, compared to the $36,000 startup funding black women received.

The glaring question is this: When black and Latina women are pursuing entrepreneurship at a higher rate than any other group, why is their funding so hard to come by?

Exploring the role of identity in the entrepreneurial process is one way to help us understand this trend. Often, when people think “entrepreneur,” what comes to mind is someone who’s male and white—indeed, the person, the data shows, who gets the most financial backing. But what happens to those of us who don’t fit that image?

Our identities shape the experience of starting and running a business, and our life experiences are shaped by the intersections of those different identities. How we experience being a woman depends on whether we are black or white. How we experience our race or ethnic identity depends on whether we are male or female. How we experience motherhood depends on whether we are middle class or working class. All the identities we bring to our entrepreneurial efforts intersect in meaningful ways.

The way we cultivate, legitimize and support entrepreneurs should consider the intersections of those many identities, as well. Startups happen within the context of a life, not the other way around. To truly support business efforts, it’s important that the support considers the ways in which whole lives intersect with entrepreneurship. The stories of three budding entrepreneurs—Shirmiel Duncan, Jelissa Edwards and Jasmine Banks— tell us why and help us consider how.

RESPONDING TO A NEED

At its heart, entrepreneurship is about solving problems and creating new opportunities. Many successful entrepreneurs hatch their ideas based on problems they are personally experiencing and then realize they are not alone. By solving their own problem, they help others. It is “necessity entrepreneurship” and “survival entrepreneurship.”

Meet Shirmiel Duncan. She is 34, married, and a mother of five. Duncan is interested in starting her own childcare business. “I came to entrepreneurship because there was a need,” she says. “With my family size, it isn’t feasible for me to be in the workplace. Being your own boss, you get to set your own hours. You get to bend your schedule the way that you need it. The most recent example of this was my son needing neurological testing. He has a lot of special needs that working a regular 40-hour-a-week job does not allow me to attend to in the way they need to be attended. As the owner of my own business, if I need to, I can drop everything to meet that need as opposed to having to put in for time off,” she says.

For Duncan, entrepreneurship is intricately tied to her role as a mother. It is a pathway that allows her to be both a present parent and a partner who is co-providing for her family. As she explores this option, she finds herself getting lost in the process.

The first problem she faces is completing her business plan. As it seems, she is doing the work, but the expectations about the final outcome are not transparent. She recalls her experience with a potential funder. “In the beginning, what they were asking me was challenging, but I rose to the challenge. This is going to be my third or fourth time submitting a plan. There is always something I have to ‘tweak,” says Duncan.

The second problem is accessibility. From her perspective, the authorities who can give her permission to move on to the next level are unavailable. “Someone in the organization told me to send my plan to her. But she didn’t get back to me,” says Duncan. “I feel like I’ve been pushed to the side.”

The lacking reconnection with Duncan is about something bigger than providing a good service or support. It delays her venture. “The business plan dictates my ability to get the money in order to secure a facility,” says Duncan.

Although she wants to resist the thought, she can’t help but wonder if her race is an obstacle. “It feels like a black thing, but sometimes you can’t be sure. In our society, we hear about black people being pushed aside every day, and then it happens to you. You see the difference in their body language when they talk to you, and you see the difference in their treatment of you,” says Duncan. “But I feel that if I were white, I would have my facility already, and we would be past this part,” she says, frustrated. It’s hard not to consider this, when you consider the funding gaps the data shows.

She also thinks about whether or not doing “women’s work,” namely what is perceived as black women’s work, presents another problem—that the kind of business she wants to start invites dismissal. “I’ve said to myself before that maybe I’m not taken seriously because I want to own a daycare. But as long as there is a need, I will pursue it. We’re the ones that take care of everybody’s babies. I don’t know if society is looking at childcare as a black woman’s easy way out, but for some of us, being there and taking care of other people’s children is a passion. Being a childcare provider is important because we help shape the future of kids. I take that seriously. Society doesn’t realize the importance of the need of childcare,” she says.

Recognizing that people may not take her business plan seriously because they see her business as glorified babysitting, she finds herself stuck, unsure and floundering to gain legitimacy. As a community, what can we do to help women like Duncan succeed?

BUILDING THE VENTURE

Entrepreneurs develop products all the time. But products are not businesses. Marketing, channels for delivery, packaging plans and connections make up a business. Building this machinery often requires a set of skills, experiences and support that were not needed to create the product. Being an “untraditional” entrepreneur can compound the difficulty of attaining these things.

Meet Jelissa Edwards. She is 26, a single mother of two and an author who has completed her first book, “Loyal to the Game: Fighting for What’s Mine.”

“Five years from now, I want to be a best-selling author who, eventually, wants to start her own publishing company. I want to give voice to people who haven’t had one because that was me. My voice is in my book,” says Edwards.

As she works to fulfill this vision, she finds mothering can be a barrier in entrepreneurial spaces. “Often, when I meet with people, I have to bring my children with me. I’ve been in meetings with people where the other person was uncomfortable because my children were there,” says Edwards. “My son has a disability, and sometimes needed my attention. I was there, taking notes, doing the best I could. But the person was impatient and cut the meeting short. She said we can resume it later, and we never did. That was very discouraging. The sad thing is she was another woman with kids,” she says.

But that wasn’t her first experience with feeling cut off or dismissed. “Before I got with the publishing company I’m with now, we didn’t get a response. People [in general] were too busy to give me advice. A part of me don’t know how to feel. Am I being brushed off? I’m looking for resources. And I need help. But help is really hard to find. It scares me. It makes me think I may never get to where I want to be,” says Edwards.

Her story begs the question: Who has a right to be an entrepreneur? And what parts of oneself does she have to amputate to enter that space? It’s no secret that entrepreneurship is often a male-dominated arena. But even when women are in positions of power, it is not uncommon for the status quo to be maintained. Women are often gatekeepers of practices that may go against our own best interests. Although Edwards’ story speaks to the challenges faced by a young, single, African-American mother, the issues she faces are women’s issues. Our culture may be shifting to encourage more men to increase their responsibility at home, but women are still the primary caregivers for children. When we work to create entrepreneurial models that consider women like Edwards, we create viable options for mothers across the board.

GETTING FUNDING

Every business needs funding to launch and grow. While this may seem straightforward, it really isn’t. Entrepreneurs have to develop a strategy that addresses how much money they need, at what points in time, and from what sources. They often struggle with, or overlook, this strategic step. When they do take it into account, they learn quickly that raising money is damn hard.

While it is hard for everyone, it is definitely more challenging for some. The wealth gap between black and white members of this country is significant, for many historical and current reasons, and study after study demonstrates that there is racial bias in financial lending. In the black community, this is common knowledge.

Jasmine Banks, 48, single, mother of one and grandmother of two, is the founder and CEO of Perfect Imperfections, a natural body care line. Discovering entrepreneurship in mid-life, she is conservative about the kinds of financial risks she is willing to take. At almost 50, the stakes can be too high.

“There is no way on God’s green earth, as a single mother, I would be able to quit my job and pursue my dream. Knowing credit the way that I do, there is no way I can ask for a small business loan. I don’t have the credit. Even if I had the credit, I couldn’t afford to repay the loan because I don’t make enough to pay the bank,” says Banks.

“While participating in a program, I asked the question: ‘Can you start a business without going into debt?’ And the banker looked at me like I was crazy. But I don’t have a cushion. I don’t have anything but my house. It’s not that I’m not invested. I don’t want to take risks I can’t come back from,” she says.

Banks recognizes that she is too mature to be living the poetic life of a starving artist. She understands that the days of taking the kinds of risks that can land her without a home are behind her. Yet, needing to avoid the possibility of losing her home does not change the fact that owning her own business should be a realistic option. “This is my dream. I literally want to be able to do something I enjoy. I want to be able to wake up and create,” Banks says.

This was not always the plan. “I came to entrepreneurship by accident,” she says. “My mom passed away from cervical cancer. She was diagnosed in June and passed away in November. It was so traumatic for me. I started to think about things we mindlessly use: deodorant, toothpaste, etc. The words or ingredients I couldn’t understand I started looking up. A lot of the side effects were negative. And they would say those negative effects were in small doses. And I started thinking that if we have been using these items over time, they’ve now become huge doses. So I started with soap. It was the first thing I made. And then I made a sugar scrub for my daughter’s baby shower. I made a sugar scrub for everyone who RSVP’d. People started to ask me how much I sell my scrub for. Enough people asked me, and I started thinking maybe I should sell it. I got together a bunch of girlfriends, and we put together a craft fair. And I pretty much sold out of my item. Had someone not asked, ‘How much are you selling this for?,’ I never would’ve started my own business.”

Becoming an entrepreneur might have been accidental, but the products Banks creates are very intentional. Often, they are inspired by her customers’ feedback. Scented whipped body butter, candles, and lotion bars are some of the client-inspired items now included in her lineup.

Creating with her customers in mind is not just about smart expansion, it’s about solving problems. She recalls an encounter with a woman at one of her shows.  “She showed me her hands and showed me how cracked they were and said she needed [a lotion bar] for them. And I told her, ‘Now you got me excited because I have to think about how to make something that you can carry around with you.’ So I created a lotion bar that I put in deodorant tubes.”

The financial barriers that make it difficult for Banks to pursue her dream full time have an impact on not just her, but on the people who benefit from her product. While some of her creations may enter the houses of folks who shop at Whole Foods or Macy’s, often, people who feel uncomfortable in those spaces purchase from her, too. For many, Banks is their introduction to healthier body care alternatives. For others, she may be their only option. What can financial institutions do, or what can we do as a community, to help Banks scale her business and serve her community without losing her home? How can we create solutions that consider gender, race, class and age?

ENTREPRENEURSHIP INCLUDES IDENTITY WORK

The story that entrepreneurship is about self-sacrifice, hard work and pulling oneself up by the bootstraps is only one narrative. For many, entrepreneurship is about community, collaboration, better parenting and so much more. It’s about escaping domestic abuse. It’s about overcoming invisibility. It’s about being recognized as legitimate.

None of this discounts the importance of hard work. But what we must ask ourselves is this: In what ways are we requiring members of our society to work harder? In what ways are we promoting a process that for people who identify as woman, mother, black, mature, single, etc., becomes an insurmountable set of barriers? We must ask ourselves: How do we as a society impede all our successes by doing this? More importantly, how do our own identities benefit from a system that slows others down?

As Madison strives to become a startup city, looking deeply at how we provide support for entrepreneurs—all entrepreneurs— is crucial. Many of our programs are designed and delivered in ways that—intentionally or unintentionally—shut out people with diverse experiences and needs. When this happens, we miss out on fully realizing the potential that exists in our communities—the creativity and innovation we need to prosper. Moving away from the one-size-fits-all model and developing new and compelling approaches to fostering entrepreneurship puts us ahead of the startup game. It makes us innovators and problem solvers in ways so much of our country has not begun to consider. It requires belief in how much more we can gain from a broader, fuller embrace.

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