Entrepreneurs and corporate leaders unite in support of Black-owned businesses

By: Lisa Stiffler - Dec 13, 2020
Source: Geekwire

When Jasper Kuria considers strategies for addressing racial inequity and social injustice in the U.S., he puts support of Black entrepreneurs at the top of the list.

“It’s really about wealth inequality and opportunities for the Black community,” said Kuria. “And when you think about the massive wealth gap between the Black community and the white folks, it’s really about business ownership.”

This fall Kuria launched Black Owned Business, a platform that connects Black-owned professional service providers with companies searching for talent. The Seattle-area startup has close to 80 vendors on the platform so far, covering technology, marketing and web design, consulting, finance and accounting, law and HR. He’s also working with SurveyMonkey to encourage companies to commit to considering Black-owned businesses when hiring outside vendors. Those pledging to do so include Intuit, Zoom and Slack.

While he’s off to a good start, Kuria’s effort could benefit from another Pacific Northwest-rooted initiative.

This month, nearly 60 business and nonprofit leaders from the Northwest — such as Microsoft, Boeing, Expedia, Nintendo, Zillow, Vulcan, PATH and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation — signed on to a new coalition called Washington Employers for Racial Equity.

The group is committed to addressing inequities, including an explicit call to support Black entrepreneurs in Washington. For the past six months, the organization has been collecting data on racial injustice in the state and this month released a report sharing its findings.

“In taking a look at the data, it was very clear that Black-owned businesses are being ravaged by COVID disproportionately to white-owned businesses,” said Chris Gregoire, CEO of Challenge Seattle and former governor of Washington state. The coalition realizes that the disparities predate the pandemic.

“It’s put a spotlight on a much deeper problem,” Gregoire said.

The death of George Floyd while in police custody sparked worldwide protests against police brutality and racial inequities. The movement has caused reflection and conversation about ways to address racial inequities.

The document quantified some of the economic disparities in Washington, including the fact that only 1% of businesses in the state are Black-owned, and their average revenue is 2.3 times less than for white-owned businesses. Additionally, Black households on average earn 74-cents for every dollar earned by white households.

The business associations Challenge Seattle and Roundtable Washington worked in partnership to create the report.

Separately, last month the Washington Technology Industry Association (WTIA) created an “Anti-racism in Tech Pact” to guide organizations in combating what it considers widespread racial bias across the tech industry.

The nonprofit WTIA has attracted more than 50 tech companies and educational institutions to collaborate in overhauling hiring practices and enacting workplace changes over the next five years to more accurately reflect the diversity of the populations in which they operate.

Kuria is doing his part in trying to drum up awareness for the support of Black-owned businesses, sometimes called BOBs, including a social media campaign dubbed “Do The BOB.” The effort has received shout-outs on LinkedIn from Seattle-area notables like Madrona Venture Group’ Managing Director Matt McIlwain and former Moz CEO Rand Fishkin.

Kuria said he’s well positioned to promote this class of entrepreneurs, as he’s a member of it himself. In addition to Black Owned Business, which is a nonprofit corporation applying for 501(c)(3) status, Kuria is a managing partner of a small consultancy called The Conversion Wizards that helps large e-commerce brands generate revenue. He also launched a Q&A site on e-commerce called Capital & Growth, previously founded a fitness company and was a program manager for Microsoft.

The Black Owned Business team includes Tiffany Balmer, founder of an events company, and advisors Floret Khosa, who works in inclusion consulting; attorney Christi Muoneke, who worked at Microsoft and DocuSign; and venture capitalist and Techstars co-founder Brad Feld, who has also provided financial support for the startup.

There are other Northwest-based efforts to bolster minority entrepreneurs.

For many years Craft3, a local community lender, has been supporting companies owned by people of color and women. The organization this month announced that it received a $5 million loan and $250,000 grant from Google.org. The money will support businesses hit hard by COVID-19 and provide capital for companies in marginalized communities.

Intentionalist and TheWMarketplace are two startups working to drive consumers to minority- and women-owned companies and services, with focuses beyond Black-owned enterprises. Large, national companies that are similar include supplier.io and National Minority Supplier Development Council (NMSDC).

Kuria, who is also operating on a national level, said the current big players in the field are too expensive for many companies, whether they’re service providers or those hiring vendors. Vendors on the Black Owned Business platform are charged 3% of any contract landed through the site. The site is currently free for companies to use, with plans to charge them $846 for the first year of access to the database (the figure was chosen because a Minneapolis police officer pressed on Floyd’s neck for 8 minutes and 46 seconds).

While businesses recognize the critical social and economic need to support Black entrepreneurs, Kuria emphasized that the hires are not at the expense of solid performance. The vendors he’s working with “are very talented,” he said, “and often because others are overlooking them, you can find a lot of diamonds in the rough.”

He expects that over time the platform will build a reputation for high quality vendors, Kurian said, and “it becomes less about being Black-owned.”