The post-Reconstruction South ushered in Jim Crow laws, systemically designed to condemn the black community to second-class citizenship. To counter this reality, several black communities across the country developed areas known as “Black Wall Street.”
These were financial nerve centers of economic development spurred by black entrepreneurs who sought to meet the needs of their community that would otherwise be denied because of segregation.
Arguably, the most successful of the Black Wall Streets was located in Durham. The four block hub on Parrish Street served the black community there for nearly a century.
National leaders including W.E.B. DuBois and Booker T. Washington visited Durham on several occasions, seeing it as a model of successful black entrepreneurship that should be replicated in other areas. By the 1960s, much of what Black Wall Street symbolized was but a glorious memory of yesteryear.
But today, a group of young entrepreneurs — Jesica Averhart, Talib Graves-Manns, Dee McDougal and Tobias Rose — have formed a partnership in Durham, building on the Black Wall Street legacy to offer a groundbreaking 21st century version.
With a goal of increasing the number of entrepreneurs of color, specifically in the world of technology, this 21st century version of Black Wall Street celebrates innovation and entrepreneurship within diverse, multicultural communities. Next month, they will host their second annual Black Wall Street Homecoming conference in Durham.
“When you think about what made Black Wall Street so special at the turn of the century, it was problem solving,” Averhart told me, adding, “You had a black community 30 years removed from slavery, trying to figure out how to survive in a country that wasn’t accepting them.”
And the problem that today’s Black Wall Street is attempting to solve is a gargantuan one.
Technology, on the idea front, along with professional sports, may represent the ultimate meritocracies, where one is measured largely by one’s talents and abilities. But when one examines it from the perspective of who receives funding, meritocracy quickly takes a backseat to the more traditional ways decisions are made in America.
“The beauty of technology is that it knows no color. However, the need for Black Wall Street and organizations like ours today is that the ‘club’ still exists,” McDougal told me. “Access to capital and connection is what we really want to provide to entrepreneurs of color,” she said.
McDougal’s analysis is supported by a recent report by PricewaterhouseCoopers that stated that in 2015, venture capitalists deployed $58.8 billion into various stages of technology ventures. Less than one percent went into black-owned businesses.
Even more staggering is to consider the difficulty for anyone seeking funding. According to McDougal, “Venture capitalists tell us they receive between 1,000 and 2,000 proposals annually. Of that group they actually review 200, and of that 200 they may make 5-10 investments.”
But the funding disparity that Black Wall Street seeks to address is not a resurrection of the challenges that their antecedents faced. It is human nature in this case to fund the businesses with which one is familiar. Too often, businesses of color never get an opportunity to pitch venture capitalists, let alone reach the seed round of funding.
If the groups making the funding decisions are comprised primarily of white men, it stands to reason that without an intentional effort, businesses led by people of color and women will be left out.
I also suspect if those demographics were reversed and it were black men who dominated the venture capitalists decisions, they would be more prone to invest in businesses headed by black men.
The only way to grow scalable businesses, securing the proper funding, is having access to the right connections. This is the primary gap that Black Wall Street seeks to close.
While the reasons behind this phenomenon are obviously not as pernicious as, say, Jim Crow segregation, the existing narrative remains problematic.
But many of those in a position to finance these ventures also see it in their self-interest as a problem worth addressing. This is not some quota to satisfy a particular group, but a willingness to expand the pool of possibilities in order to invest in someone with an idea that can potentially change the current landscape.
Google Fiber, the Magic Johnson Foundation, Square 1 Bank and American Underground are among the organizations underwriting the upcoming conference that will put entrepreneurs at every stage with venture capitalists and others.
The conference will take place Oct. 12-14 at various venues in Downtown Durham. For more information, go to http://bwshomecoming.com/about/
The Rev. Byron Williams is a writer and the host of the NPR-affiliated “The Public Morality”
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