Farah Allen remembers feeling stuck.
“I had my company in the market for a year,” she said. “I knew how to make technology and resource teams, but I didn’t know how to run a business.”
As a Black female entrepreneur, she ran into the same problems whenever she sought help from entrepreneurship groups: “No one there looked like me. And they were trying to help at Step 5, not understanding their assistance isn’t valuable if I’m on Step 1,” she said.
Then, she discovered digitalundivided, an organization committed to empowering Black and Latinx entrepreneurs. Allen said participating in Cohort 1 of the DID program was “entering a world where people ‘got’ me.
“Beforehand, I didn’t have people who took the time to understand I didn’t grow up in this world, and that I was kept out of the loop.”
That was in 2012.
The need for diversity, equity and inclusion in entrepreneurship appears to be just as great today.
The current racial climate talks about helping underserved communities. One of the biggest ways to do this is through business opportunities. That’s not as easy as it sounds. These entrepreneurs need unique guidance. That’s where digitalundivided comes in.
Founded in Atlanta, the organization moved to an office in Newark earlier this year. Here’s how it works.
Entrepreneurs can start with a virtual training program, then become a part of an incubator program specifically designed for Black and Latinx women-led startups. Participants will get training and leadership coaching throughout.
Allen currently mentors participants from START, a three-week virtual certificate program that teaches participants frameworks for making their business ideas realities.
Digitalundivided said its staff leads more than 200 workshops, keynotes and panel presentations each year, with partners as diverse as corporations (Microsoft, Facebook, Prudential) to foundations (Kauffman, Surdna) to universities (Harvard, Yale).
The need clearly is there. Interim CEO Lauren Maillian said the challenges these entrepreneurs face today are especially difficult.
“For the entrepreneur of color who has limited resources, a limited knowledge base and (is) already operating in what we like to call the ‘scrappy lean’ way, COVID-19 was your worst nightmare,” she said.
Maillian said the current racial tensions and deaths of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor and now Rayshard Brooks bring an additional emotional toll.
“We have to acknowledge these events are compounding, and when you have these sorts of compounding stressors, you have a long-term impact,” she said.
Digitalundivided also is data-driven. The organization’s goal is to harness the power of data to create system change. Or, at least, acknowledge the issues.
Maillian pointed to the group’s most recent study, The State of Black Women During COVID-19.
“We surveyed 1,157 women, and, of those women, 12% said that they could pay themselves an honest sustainable wage,” she said. “So, that means that we had 88% of our respondents that could not afford to support themselves at all.”
Maillian said half the battle of navigating funding pipelines and being financially healthy comes from unspoken rules of conduct and unspoken rules of success.
“These are the letters you need, this is the strongest way to apply, etc.,” she said.
Times are changing, Maillian said. She said some founders are selling products that already exist, but simply don’t have a Black or Latinx CEO running the company.
“This is one of the first times where we’re seeing women, including women at digitalundivided, say, ‘There’s no amount of money that could make me work with you.’”
At the same time, companies with little diversity are looking to make amends. Maillian said it will be a long process.
“This is not a situation where we can put a Band-Aid on 400 years, or even 40 or 50 years, of pain and inequality and hurt and confusion,” she said.
Allen agreed, but also noted the importance of Black founders “being the first” — meaning, the first Black person to join a program or organization or serve at a certain level.
Allen has seen that impact firsthand. She said she initially did not get into a program with notably little diversity, but that they recently reached back out to her, saying she was being “reconsidered.”
It’s baby steps, Allen said.
“This program is so important for the culture we (Black founders) are trying to fit into, so I will still consider being in it,” she said. “Because, if I don’t enter in it right now, what Black founders are going to come to it?
“This program isn’t going to go away. We need representation if we’re going to be equal in the decision-making factor of bringing people in.”
Digitalundivided’s community is something Maillian aims to increase and uphold as she continues to lead the organization. The community is something that has empowered Allen since 2012, and one she wants to keep giving back to, so “current founders don’t make mistakes I made even a year ago.”
Allen said she feels the future of The Labz, her blockchain platform for artists, is looking bright:
“The world better prepare itself that, yes, a Black woman runs this,” she said.