Entrepreneurs, consultants, JumpStart trying to make Cleveland’s tech scene more diverse

Posted at 7:33 AM, Mar 29, 2021
and last updated 2021-03-29 19:04:28-04

CLEVELAND — Americans across the nation are spending a lot more time thinking about racial equity and inclusion after George Floyd’s death, members of Cleveland’s community of technology companies are thinking about what needs to happen to make that space represent the community in which it operates.

Long before the coronavirus forced students to learn from home, Cleveland-based Parents In Motion was a company founded on two basic principles: Ridesharing and getting students to school.

Vetted drivers were connected with families who needed help dropping off and picking up their students all over Cleveland. It was basically an Uber for kids and something that anyone who used a rideshare app and most parents could understand.

Parents In Motion pivoted during the pandemic to offer tutoring instead of rides for students.

And yet, co-founders Charisma Curry and Chanel Williams say they still often struggled to show investors the benefits of their work.

“When we’re explaining concepts to people, they question it a lot more,” said Williams. “Being a black woman in technology, you literally have to pull every single string in your identity to relate to someone just to get to the main fact of why you’re even there.”

Parents in Motion Chief Technology Officer Chanel Williams talks about the company's work before the pandemic in 2019.

“They’ll say things like, ‘You thought of this?” said Curry. “As if you’re incapable of whatever because of whatever unconscious biases they may have.”

Once the pandemic started, Curry and Williams pivoted the company to PIM LEARNS, offering tutoring to students learning remotely in an effort to offset the emotional and educational challenges caused by the pandemic.

Curry and Williams point out that they also had more positive interactions where they were offered help or introductions that could help advance their start-up. But the big problem that arises from a challenge to connect with investors is that it can limit the much-needed fundraising necessary to build and grow their company.

Parents in Motion co-founder Charisma Curry says the company pivoted to stay afloat during the pandemic, but also because the needs of its clients changed.

Studies by RateMyInvestor, Diversity VC, and Crunchbase all show that Black and Hispanic people who start a company have gotten less than 3% of all the money investors have put into startups in the United States dating back to 2015.

JumpStart’s entrepreneur-in-residence Ron Stubblefield says that has a lot to do with white investors often connecting better with white entrepreneurs who have a similar background, network, and education.

“When you take those things together, that’s why you see a disproportionate under-representation,” said Stubblefield. “There are individuals who happen to be in tech who are African American and Hispanic but they tend to be the exception, not the norm.”

"You create the jobs, you grow the tax base, you provide the opportunities to take care of people and help them make their dreams come true," said Stubblefield, talking about the good that comes from making it easier for businesses to get off the ground.

Denise Williams knows the feeling.

“We’re often unheard,” said Williams, talking about often being the only person of color in meetings during her career in tech.

Williams started Tech Diva Consulting after getting laid off from IBM in 2018.

“I started to see a lot of lack of representation of black faces and voices in the tech space and I wanted to be able to help my community build their solutions,” said Williams. “So that’s how Tech Diva was formed.”

"It made the most sense to align with those types of businesses to help them get out there because those are the businesses that often don't have the funding," said Williams talking about businesses started by female founders or founders of color. "They don't have the kind of money to push forward as someone else might."

Williams works largely with female founders and founders of color to help them figure out if they need to expand how their company uses technology and how to do it. By helping those companies succeed, she’s hoping it will show other black and brown founders what’s possible for them too.

“Reducing the barrier to entry allows others to get in and pull others up,” said Williams. “There was nobody for me to look up to and say I could do this too or I could learn programming.”

But the mentorship provided by people like Stubblefield and the representation made possible by founders like Williams are only part of the battle and still don’t address the fact that entrepreneurs of color get significantly fewer investments compared to their white counterparts.

No money means no start-up.

Crunchbase's study shows that founders of color get less than three percent of all the investment dollars given to start ups across the United States.

“The narrative is shifting and I think it’s shifting in the right direction,” said JumpStart’s Chief Advancement and Relationship Officer Teleange Thomas.

Part of that shifting in the right direction is JumpStart’s Focus Fund which often makes about $250,000 available to companies started by female entrepreneurs or entrepreneurs of color.

“We need to focus around women, we need to focus around Blacks, we need to focus around the Latinx population and remove as many barriers that historically have been there to make sure that they have the opportunity to be successful as well,” said Thomas. “We need to have a dedicated resource where they can compete within a pool of their peers and not be competing against the majority, white, male, tech entrepreneurs who get a majority of the funding.”

"You also need to see yourself in the space so being able to see individuals who have that experience, have been in the field, who can mentor, who can advise, who can connect the dots, who can help break barriers is very important," said Thomas.

She says especially as the United States climbs out of the pandemic, that’s how to make the economy recover in a way that lifts everyone up.

“That economy has to be inclusive,” said Thomas. “It will not be stronger, it will not be sustainable if it’s not representative and has the ability to connect opportunity to those who live, work, play, worship, learn in our region.”

It’s clear more work has to be done but while we’re paying attention to the historical wrongs many Americans have suffered for generations, Stubblefield says this is a moment where we can all change what we think of ourselves and others.

“If people don’t think they’re capable of doing something, they probably won’t try,” said Stubblefield. “If others don’t think someone else is capable, they won’t invest.”

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