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Innovation

A Seat at the Table

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These Delawareans are working to expand access to the innovation economy.

Founder and President of the Delaware Black Chamber of Commerce Ayanna Khan

The dilemma is a familiar one for many owners of small businesses: they spend so much time on their day-to-day operations that there aren’t enough hours left to focus on how to make that business grow.

For minority entrepreneurs — often first-generation business owners lacking the contacts need-ed to secure the financing that’s essential to their growth — the problem is more acute, says Ayanna Khan, founder and president of the Delaware Black Chamber of Commerce.

“Delaware is one of the easier states in which to get incorporated, and the banking-financial sector offers lots of opportunities for small businesses, but Delaware hasn’t always been inclusive and equitable,” she says. “People of color have less access to capital, lower credit scores and pay higher interest rates.”

The Black Chamber, established in September 2020, is working to change that, and it’s hardly alone in that effort. Improving opportunities for minorities and women in entrepreneurship and the innovation sector are among the objectives of numerous organizations and programs in Delaware, including the Pete du Pont Freedom Foundation, First Founders, Startup302, the Delaware Latino Professional Network, the New Castle County Chamber of Commerce and the Fusion Alliance. Networking, mentoring and pitch competitions are among the tools employed to help minority entrepreneurs build their skills, reach new markets and identify new sources of funding.

Then there is Delaware State University, a historically Black institution that has launched makerspace The Garage to support entrepreneurship among students of any major. The College of Business also has embarked on several other efforts to support Black entrepreneurship, such as joining the Small Busi-ness Development Center’s Community Navigator Program to help underserved businesses access critical resources.

Khan, a Middletown business consult-ant who is the daughter of two entrepreneurs, says the Black Chamber already has more than 400 members and that, during the COVID-19 pandemic, it provided technical assistance to help 127 businesses qualify for more than $2 million in federal relief funds.

Besides helping the Chamber’s members find funding, it has helped connect them with larger businesses. A supplier diversity series, launched late last year, helps members make contact with big companies like DuPont, JPMorgan Chase and Bloom Energy.

Spreading the Word, Linking Resources
First Founders
is a business accelerator that supports underrepresented entrepreneurs. It was founded by Garry Johnson III shortly after he graduated from the University of Delaware in 2019. His first program, lasting 12 weeks and sponsored by the New Castle County government, enrolled eight people and offered guest speakers providing advice on marketing, design, financing, personnel and other topics. “We told them, ‘here are the skills you need on your team,’” Johnson says.

The COVID-19 pandemic proved a blessing in disguise, forcing Johnson into all-virtual programming, which enabled him to tap into a global market. Over three years, he has frequently tweaked his programming model, but he has already helped more than 300 entrepreneurs ramp up their businesses.

Two years ago, he hosted a podcast-based pitch competition for about 30 entrepreneurs, including six or seven from Delaware. He challenged participants to spread the word about the event and, in a span of two weeks, the podcasts drew more than 25,000 likes from listeners.

Along the way, Johnson has linked into other entrepreneurial programming.

First Founders has joined with some other big names in the state’s entrepreneurial sphere — the Delaware Prosperity Partnership, the Delaware Sustainable Chemistry Alliance (DESCA), the University of Delaware’s Horn Entrepreneurship program, The Innovation Space and Delaware State University — to organize Startup302, a competition in which underrepresented science and fintech entrepreneurs vie for thousands of dollars in prizes. Participants also benefit from networking and mentoring opportunities. The three-day event, held in May, attracted more than 125 entrants from eight countries, with more than a quarter of them from Delaware. According to Johnson, half of the entrants were businesses headed by women; by race/ethnicity, 71% were Black, 17% Asian/Pacific Islander, 10% Latinx and 2% Native American.

Stephanie Johnnie

The Pete du Pont Freedom Foundation, established in 2003, pivoted in 2015 to focus more on the state by launching its Reinventing Delaware competition.Reinventing Delaware was created to help entrepreneurs bring the proverbial “next big idea” to fruition through networking and exposure to prospective mentors and financers. Most of the first seven winners have been entrepreneurs of color, says Stephanie Johnnie, the foundation’s executive director.

The foundation took a second step to promote women and minority entrepreneurs in 2020 by creating its Equitable Entrepreneurial Ecosystem, known as E3. Entrepreneurs apply for the five-month program and, Johnnie explains, those with the most promising ideas receive about $5,000 worth of services from a third-party consultant, who helps them identify areas for opportunity and growth. Following a second round of evaluations, the most promising businesses receive another $10,000 in consulting services, which can include advice on marketing, information technology, space planning and access to funding. At the end of this process, the project deemed best by the foundation’s evaluation team receives a $15,000 cash award.

“We’re open to everyone, but the emphasis is on working with underrepresented entrepreneurs,” Johnnie says. Participants in the program range from businesses still in the conceptual stage to those with established operations who are struggling with trying to figure out how to grow.

Unique Challenges in the Latinx Community
Delaware’s Latinx-owned businesses face the same challenges encountered by other minority entrepreneurs, especially access to funding and identifying capable team members, says Givvel Marrero, who founded the Delaware Latino Professional Networking in 2018. The organization, which Marrero describes as “a think-tank networking group,” has grown to more than 400 members, most of them the heads of small businesses.The COVID-19 pandemic, while not stunting the organization’s growth, has slowed its development, especially in arranging workshops to help members learn new skills.

Latinx entrepreneurs are subject to a couple of stigmas, Marrero says. One is the conception that most of their operations are home-based, and the other is that they primarily serve the Spanish-speaking community. “The majority are full-blown businesses [and] we’re striving to show the non-Hispanic community that we’re viable,” he says.

Marrero, who has started multiple businesses of his own — in marketing, real estate and now operating an alpaca farm, says “Latino business owners are prideful, but they are not ‘out going prideful.’ We have to teach them that it’s OK to boast when you’re successful.”

Helping Established Businesses Become More Inclusive
The New Castle County Chamber of Commerce, through its Emerging Enterprise Center, helps early-stage entrepreneurs with everything from vetting business plans to providing low-cost office space. “We’re open to everyone, but 70% of the companies being incubated are owned by minorities or women,” says Bob Chadwick, the chamber president.

Bob Chadwick

Once the startup’s business plan is completed, the chamber links the entrepreneur with one or more mentors, depending on the company’s needs, Chadwick says. As companies grow and add employees, they will need HR policies, and help is available in writing them, he says. Office space is available with six-month leases, and the rent includes access to office equipment and conference rooms.

Entrepreneurs at the Emerging Enterprise Center also have access to all county chamber events, putting them in contact with larger businesses and potential funders.

Taking a slightly different approach to increasing access for women and minorities is the Fusion Alliance of the Delaware Racial Justice Collaborative, an offshoot of the United Way of Delaware. It’s more of a Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) training program for established businesses and nonprofits, but a key goal is to make leaders “more intentional about recruitment in Brown and Black communities,” says Michelle Taylor, United Way president and CEO.

Michelle Taylor

Participating organizations make a two-year commitment and are paired with a DEI coach/consultant who examines the entity’s current status on DEI topics, listens to the CEO’s vision, and then develops a plan for the board and CEO to implement.

About a dozen organizations are participating this year, and next year’s goal is 24 to 30 businesses and nonprofits, Taylor says.

After two years, the Fusion Alliance will examine what the process has accomplished and, assuming that progress is being made, will begin to promote its goals within the broader community.

As organizations become more diverse and more inclusive, opportunities for women and minorities will grow, placing them in a better position to demonstrate their innovative and entrepreneurial talents, Taylor says.

While each of these programs works differently, they aim to achieve an objective succinctly expressed by Khan, the Black Chamber leader: “We’re not looking for a handout,” she says. “We’re looking for a hand up.”

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