It was amazing to see. Usher Raymond IV was upstaged by a 13-year-old at his own World Leadership Conference.
And that was the point.
Usher’s New Look Foundation is one of several organizations tapping into enormous amounts of talent inherent in America’s inner city communities. I attended this year’s UNL World Leadership Conference in Atlanta, which brought together hundreds of youth leaders from around the world for an annual celebration and awards ceremony. As a guest of Shawn Wilson, president of Usher’s New Look Foundation, I was hoping to get a chance to interview Usher and Ted Turner (this year’s World Leader award recipient). But I was soon mesmerized by a sea of incredibly talented, high-energy teens who held no doubt that they will be tomorrow’s global leaders. I’m inclined to agree.
One young Black girl embodied the soul of the event.
In a hotel ballroom where hundreds were seated around dozens of linen cloth-covered tables, 13-year-old entrepreneur, Mary-Pat Hector, strode confidently to a standing microphone on a raised stage under the spotlights and faced a panel of five investors. She had limited time to convince them all to invest in her business, Youth in Action. Poised and professional, Mary-Pat persuaded the investors to award her more funding than any of her older competitors that evening. They were amazed that she was only 13 and had already expanded her organization to several states. Of course, she had several years of experience. She founded the company at age 10.
Black America needs more Mary-Pats.
The exercise presented by Usher’s New Look Foundation is being repeated around the country by a variety of organizations that recognize the dire circumstances facing Black American adults today and the challenges our youth will face tomorrow as both qualified job seekers and job creators in the 21st-century global innovation economy.
The challenges are daunting.
Consider the fact that Black unemployment today is nearly double the overall jobless rate. That’s bad. Now consider that statistic has not changed year over year, decade over decade, since Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was complaining about the lack of jobs and articulating his dream from a stage on the Washington Mall in 1963. That’s really bad.
Consider also the fact that Brown v. Board of Education in 1954 sparked a wave of desegregation initiatives through the decades to address the substandard education of Black students. Today, schools are divided into two main economic categories: high-poverty and low-poverty, based upon the percentages of students whose families qualify for free or reduced meals. High-poverty schools represent 17% of the public schools nationwide. Minority students represent 89% of the population of such urban area education institutions. The academic outcomes are abysmal and have remained so for decades. Graduation rates today hover around 50%. And many academic processes are so out of touch with higher education and industry standards that students often grapple with the dilemma of dropping out of school early to compete for minimum-wage jobs or waiting until graduation for the same minimum-wage option.
Fortunately, there’s a level playing field.
In the midst of Silicon Valley, within rock-throwing distance of the famed Sand Hill Road (Mecca of the venture capital industry), the Level Playing Field Institute provides low-income minority students a remarkable opportunity to attend its Summer Math and Science Honors (SMASH) Academy for five weeks, three consecutive years, completely free. Students live, study, eat and play all on the campuses of U.C. Berkeley and Stanford University (soon Yale and other universities will join the fast-growing list).
There’s no debate over the significant transition that has taken place in America’s economy. No longer are we a manufacturing-focused nation. Today’s knowledge-based, technology driven innovation economy will demand 80% of the workforce have a foundation of STEM education (science, technology, engineering and math).
Education is the key to success, so goes the mantra.
In the 21st-century innovation economy, STEM education is key to qualifying for top jobs. Black Americans are roughly 13% of the population, yet comprise a mere 5% of STEM professionals across all disciplines.
Visionary K-12 leaders have recognized the need to marry education platforms with higher education requirements. The Level Playing Field Institute is one model of several that removes financial obstacles for many students and opens the doors to high achievement and the American Dream.
But what can be done to stem the tide of economic despair today?
The Black Innovation and Competitiveness Initiative (BICI) is answering that question. Introducing a new visionary economic narrative to connect Black America to the 21st-century innovation economy, the BICI focuses on three primary pillars: STEM education and workforce development; access to capital and risk capital formation; and high-growth entrepreneurship.
Recognizing that few Black Americans are connected to the current infrastructures that propel the new innovation economy, the BICI is dedicated to the task of spreading awareness exponentially and building a foundation from which an entrepreneurial ecosystem can emerge. That requires bringing innovators together with investors. That also requires galvanizing Black capital and encouraging high-net-worth Black Americans to get in the game of private risk capital and invest in Black innovations.
The good news is we are the ones we’ve been waiting for to save us. And we desperately need saving.
Consider that recent economic reports show data from 2007 that Black Americans had 1.9 million businesses with a 60% rise in entrepreneurship over the previous five years, dwarfing the entrepreneurial increases made by any other racial demographic group. Unfortunately, that was the only good news media could report.
The reality was that 1.8 million of those Black-owned businesses were sole proprietors with no employees. And the average number of employees for employer companies was nine (9).
Consider also that all 1.9 million Black-owned businesses produced revenues totaling less than 1% GDP. That was before the biggest economic collapse since the Great Depression.
The BICI offers more shocking data that show the real depth of despair in Black America. But it also provides real working models of job creation and wealth generation occurring, now that Black America can employ to build an infrastructure that isn’t completely dependent upon political processes, and also offers opportunities to Black innovators wherever they live.
Black capital is key to financing Black innovation.
Over the past 65 years, America has built a venture capital infrastructure that has grown into hundreds of venture capital groups and hundreds of angel investment groups. In 2010, VC-backed companies represented 21% of GDP. Black America doesn’t have such an infrastructure. The only Black “angel” group in the nation belonging to the Angel Capital Association is the Minority Angel Investment Network in Philadelphia.
Angels are essential investment options for high-growth entrepreneurs. They take the biggest risks in assisting entrepreneurs from conceptual idea stage to proven business model. It’s at that stage that venture capital is interested in ramping the company. That rapid ramp creates jobs and generates wealth for investors who then reinvest in other companies.
One angel firm in Black America doesn’t make an infrastructure. But the good news is Black Americans are beginning to talk about innovation, investment in high-growth entrepreneurship and job creation.
In its August 2011 issue, Black Enterprise magazine featured the first Black-owned business accelerator in Silicon Valley. NewMe Accelerator was co-founded by Angela Benton and Wayne Sutton. They were backed by Mitchell and Freada Kapor of Kapor Capital (who also founded the Level Playing Field Institute).
The NewMe Accelerator is a first step that shows Black America is moving in the direction of developing an infrastructure similar to the current risk capital ecosystem that has generated massive wealth in White America (which ignored virtually all of the Black and Hispanic regions across the nation for more than six decades). Business incubators and accelerators are designed to generate quality deal flow for investors. They educate, train and mentor promising entrepreneurs who receive wraparound services needed to move their enterprises forward through milestones to a fundable stage of development.
Does Black America need high-growth entrepreneurship?
The Kauffman Foundation reports that all net new job growth in the U.S. since 1980 was by companies five years old or less. That’s 40 million jobs. The top 1% of those companies is responsible for 40% of all net new job growth each year. Those companies grow fast over five years due to venture capital investments. When Black America isn’t in the private risk capital investment game, Black innovators lose. Consider that in 2010, just 1% of high tech investments went to Black-owned companies, 87% were received by whites and 12% by Asian Americans.
High-growth entrepreneurship fuels job growth. Still, lifestyle entrepreneurship (community businesses) is a necessary part of the American landscape. But in the innovation economy, it is the high-growth companies that fuel job growth and generate wealth that has propelled median white wealth to 20 times Black wealth, according to the latest Pew Research report.
The good news is Black Americans can save Black America. We can’t expect that anyone else will. For the sake of ourselves and our children, we must invest in us. That’s something we can do today.
Mike Green is an award-winning journalist with 14 years media experience. He is the co-founder of the Black Innovation and Competitiveness Initiative and the CEO of Epiphany3D, a digital education 3D immersion gaming start-up that targets STEM education.