“There are secrets to success that are not announced.”
Shelly Bell knows how difficult it is to start a business in the United States. She recalls one of her first entrepreneurial efforts, a business selling T-shirts in 2015. “My mom invested her retirement money for me to get launched with that business, and I used my tax returns to get the [printing] machines,” she says. Now, Bell is focused on giving other Black and brown women access to the resources she didn’t have. With her foundation Black Girl Ventures (BGV), she’s providing a helping hand to ensure women like her have access to the capital to become entrepreneurs.
Bell’s had, as she puts it, “a lot of lives” — from a K-12 educator, to a computer scientist, to renting out a teepee in her living room on Airbnb (it didn’t last). But in 2018, she found herself caught by a statistic — published in a report by American Express that year — that Black and brown women receive less than 1% of venture capital in the U.S. despite starting businesses at six times the national average. As a result, she started fully focusing on her Black Girl Ventures (BGV) Foundation.
Bell had first started the foundation — which was called Black Girl Vision at the time — in 2016 with a small meeting of 30 women who put their money together to support Black and brown women entrepreneurs. The event was a cross between a crowdfund and a pitch competition. Attendees paid $15 for admission, $5 of which went into the “pitch pot.” Women entrepreneurs signed up to pitch their ideas to the group, who then voted anonymously for their favorite pitch. The winner then received the money from the pitch pot. “We voted with marbles and coffee mugs,” Bell says. “I ran the whole thing as a poetry slam.”
In 2018, BGV launched a partnership with Google Cloud for startups, scaling across Atlanta, Chicago, D.C., New York, and other cities through the Google Digital Coaches program. By 2019, BGV started expanding to around 12 cities. In January 2021, Nike partnered with BGV and invested $500,000 to help BGV grow the organization. Today, it reaches 130 founders who represent $2 million in revenue and run around 3,000 jobs. BGV focuses on three core goals: community, capacity, and capital.
The Pitch Competition is BGV’s main mechanism for delivering capital, Bell explains. She calls it a scaled-up version of the foundation’s “vote with your dollars perspective.” Like her initial meeting in 2016, it’s a crowdfunded version of capital-raising — people use the tech platform Raisify to vote for their favorite pitch. The winner is determined by the number of votes in favor of their pitch rather than the amount of money raised. Each founder has three minutes to pitch and an additional three minutes to answer questions from the audience.
In April 2021, Nike and BGV also co-created the Black Girl Ventures x Nike Pitch Competition. The competition was the company's first bracket-style pitch competition, and featured eight Black and brown women in the health, sports, and wellness spaces.
“I want this to be as big as the way the lottery supports education,” says Bell of her pitch competitions. “I want it to be Raisify and BGV is the new way to support local Black and brown women-owned businesses — not just supporting them financially without having to be a trade-off of direct goods or services, but [also] hiring them.” For Bell, going into the market means more than selling a product: She cares about building relationships with people who are already embedded in a community and ready to work.
To Bell, a good pitch involves defining what gap an idea fills, and what you, as a person, bring to your idea. “We want to know, what is it?” she explains. “Why is it? Why you for it? And who else is it for besides you?”
Kendra Woolridge, one of the BGV mentees and founder of the clean nail polish brand Janet & Jo, remembers how Bell pushed her through the September 2020 pitch competition. “I did the pitch and for some reason, I wasn't on my A-game,” she says. Her pitch was deeply personal — after losing her grandmother, and later her mother as well, to cancer, Woolridge was pitching chemical-free nail polish as a clean, safety-conscious brand. “But Shelly told me, ‘You know, Kendra, you've got it. You've got it all, you got the product, you have your purpose. You need to believe that, and I need to hear that in your voice,’” Woolridge recalls.
“That conversation has stayed with me the most out of any experience I've had while I was running my business,” Woolridge adds. After rehearsing her pitch multiple times with other BGV founders and mentors, she won second place in the pitch competition, receiving funding worth $100,000 from an anonymous donor. Since then, she’s also received accounting consultation sessions and assistance through BGV to help grow her company.
Bell is helping women on an individual level, but she’s always thinking about the systemic issue that brought her to it in the first place. “[I’m] constantly visiting what economic advancement means, not only according to the data and language, but also for the marginalized community,” she says.
The entrepreneurs Bell works with, she says, want the benefits of a deep network that provides solutions, leadership, power, and access to information. They want access to the “back door kitchen table [where the] conversations of privilege [happen]. They want to know what they don’t know and can’t find,” Bell adds. “There are secrets to success that are not announced.”
Black and brown women entrepreneurs need these kinds of tools. According to a March 2021 report from Goldman Sachs, Black women face a 90% wealth gap compared to white men, and while the gap is driven largely by earnings — Black women make, on average, 38% less than white men, per Lean In — it’s also got a lot to do with generational wealth and, yes, access to capital. Black women are four times less likely to inherit wealth than are white men, per the Goldman Sachs report, and Black entrepreneurs in general are 20% less likely to start a business using bank loans.
The struggle with pay gaps, maintaining good credit scores, and the lack of tax incentives all limit the ability of women of color to build wealth, according to Amy Matsui, director of income security at the National Women’s Law Center. “There is discrimination baked into every aspect of our economy and income disparities are exacerbated [more] for women of color,” Matsui says. “I think any entity that has better outreach and more support to intentionally think about how to best serve women of color might be well-situated to put strategies in place and offer [the type of] support that will help them succeed.”
Bell also stresses the importance of partnerships to achieve access to more capital. “Who can you be support for, and who can be a support for you?” she asks rhetorically. Since 2018, BGV has helped build entrepreneur networks through mentorships that connect founders with corporate giants, such as Goldman Sachs, to receive feedback on their pitches. “[It puts corporations] in a position to say, ‘How would I buy that thing, use that thing?’ And then putting our founders in front of them saying, ‘Hey, tell me what you think about buying this thing,’” Bell explains.
Looking to the future, BGV is still expanding. In April 2021, BGV partnered with ice cream company Coolhaus to launch its own carrot cake-flavored ice cream, the sales from which go directly to train Black and brown founders on intellectual property, design, and web development for their companies. Another expansion is a nine-month fellowship that helps founders learn how to navigate their local cities, "which then breaks up who the go-to people in your market [are],” says Bell.
Bell looks forward to hiring a team of directors, community success managers, and program leaders to further grow BGV. One of her biggest goals is to expand the BGV Pitch Competition internationally. “[I want to] go to another country to help the most underrepresented groups to get access to capital, or community, or capacity — or all three — for what they’re launching” she says.
While building a community remains BGV’s core value, at the end of the day, Bell’s advice for young Black and brown entrepreneurs is a lot simpler. “People do not validate you. Focus on return on investment instead of people liking or not liking what you have,” she says. “This should be your business model.”
Ultimately, Bell and her team focus on one core goal: providing Black and brown women access to business growth.
“Black and brown women want access to each other, they want the opportunity to work with people who sound and feel like them,” says Bell. “They want a place where, when they maybe don't hit the mark every time, there's somebody who understands that and says, ‘You know what, I got your back.’”