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Aaron Walker is founder and CEO of Camelback Ventures.

‘We Can’t Leave Innovative Ideas on the Table’

September 2, 2021
Melinda Wright
Why we must do more to support and uplift entrepreneurs of color

When it comes to entrepreneurship, color matters. Entrepreneurs of color face barriers to traditional banking, lower philanthropic funding and fewer seats at the leadership table.

This unfortunate reality prevents us all from benefitting from great ideas and the talented people behind them. The truth is, when philanthropic organizations and companies make “color blind” choices in who they fund, hire and promote, they are ignoring the structural underpinning of what makes diverse talent extraordinary – our deep understanding of the challenges at hand and the communities we serve. When I hear from partners, “We don’t see color,” my response has been and always will be, “Please, see that I am Black, notice that I’m a woman, and understand the opportunity that brings with it.”

Philanthropy cannot work honestly to address racial inequities without first claiming responsibility for the roles our organizations have played in helping to create this current reality. For example, during the mezzanine – or expansion - stage of growth, Black and Latinx leaders receive only about 4% of philanthropic funding.

When it comes to securing access to capital, minority small business owners are disproportionately denied credit.

Beyond funding, entrepreneurs of color also enter the nonprofit field at lower rates. Currently, 75% of executive directors in the sector identify as white, despite the country’s growing diversity. Our partners at the Bridgespan Group and Echoing Green attribute this gap in part to unconscious bias of funders who don’t share lived experiences, social capital and cultural familiarity with the communities and community leaders they support.

Fewer than 1% of venture-backed companies are co-founded by Black and Latinx entrepreneurs. One reason? When it comes to securing access to capital, minority small business owners are disproportionately denied credit, and Black business owners specifically are 5.2 times more likely to be denied a loan. This lending deficit by traditional banks makes it even more important for philanthropy to support and elevate entrepreneurs of color.

We must do more. The Walton Family Foundation’s 2025 Strategy reflects a renewed and growing commitment to prioritizing diversity, equity and inclusion in the work it undertakes, acting on our long-held conviction that when people with different ideas and backgrounds are all at the table, it yields more innovative and sustainable solutions.

Liz and Don Thompson, founders of the Cleveland Avenue Foundation for Education, provided seed funding to launch the 1954 Project.

To get there will mean consistently engaging and elevating organizations from a diverse range of backgrounds, ensuring our approach is clear, fair and consistent for every grantee and encouraging our partners to prioritize diversity, equity and inclusion within their own organizations.

The 1954 Project is one example of this growing commitment. A Black-led and Black-serving initiative, the 1954 Project has set a goal of raising $100 million to invest in innovative and culturally affirming approaches to teaching and learning, expanding educator and leader diversity and increasing economic mobility for students of color.

Aaron Walker is founder and CEO of Camelback Ventures, which supports underrepresented leaders through coaching, capital, connections and curriculum.

Elsewhere, Camelback Ventures fellowships are identifying underrepresented local leaders with promising ideas, empowering more than 80 of them so far to enact change within their communities through coaching, capital, connections and curriculum.

Beyond K-12 education, my colleagues foundation-wide are also working to develop a strong entrepreneurial ecosystem in Northwest Arkansas and the Delta Region, helping entrepreneurs of color access capital, training opportunities, mentorship networks and ongoing support. Two new Kiva Hubs in the region are supporting entrepreneurs who might otherwise be excluded from typical financing through its no-fee, no-interest crowdsourcing platform.

What is unrest if not hope veiled in anger, knowing that we can and must do better.

Our country is not colorblind. That reality has been most evident in the unrest of the past year as we confront the bias and racism deeply embedded in our systems and society. But what is unrest if not hope veiled in anger, knowing that we can and must do better.

For funders, the key now is to ensure that our work on race and equity be more than just a momentary reaction. This agitation for change in our own field, and in support of entrepreneurs of color everywhere, can and must be a long-term commitment. Seizing this moment, and sticking with it, will lead to solutions and ideas grounded in the communities they are meant to serve, and in the process, uplift us all.

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