Our Story



Learning & EVOLVING

Forward Cities was launched in 2014, at a time of growing concern that rising income inequality and a widening racial wealth gap were leaving many people and communities behind, particularly people of color and the communities where they live. We initially chose to focus our efforts on expanding entrepreneurship among Black residents in underserved communities, since business ownership is a proven pathway to wealth attainment and creates new wealth faster than wage employment. Moreover, since Black-owned businesses tend to hire more from the Black community, creating jobs for neighborhood residents, we expected that our efforts would have a multiplier effect that would not only improve the health of the Black community, but also increase regional prosperity.


As Forward Cities was getting off the ground, the Kauffman Foundation was developing a new approach to economic development focused on expanding entrepreneurship. ESHIP prioritized the development of entrepreneurial ecosystem development. Rather than focusing on providing direct support to individual entrepreneurs, entrepreneurial ecosystem building focuses on aligning and connecting a network of resources to support entrepreneurs. To advance this approach, the Kauffman Foundation convened three summits of entrepreneurial ecosystem builders and created an Entrepreneurial Ecosystem Building Playbook based on their input. Forward Cities was tapped to test this new approach in four cities, building out and codifying potentially replicable processes and tools. Successful outgrowths of the ESHIP Communities program are still thriving in multiple communities and include ESHIP Baltimore's BLK Butterfly Network and The Toolbox, which emerged from the work of ESHIP Kansas City.

Working through community councils, we piloted a “community-led, systems-based approach to strengthening entrepreneurial ecosystems in ways that foster inclusion, relationships, collaboration, and social capital across networks.”  That work catalyzed sustained impact within the pilot communities by spawning new entrepreneurial programs, ongoing collaboration, and significant local follow-on funding. From our work with the Kauffman Foundation, and our work in over three dozen other communities across the country, we have seen that the ESHIP approach is a much more efficient and effective way to support entrepreneurs than traditional approaches. The economic impact is also larger and longer lasting.


Our work has shown that race is the biggest barrier to inclusive entrepreneurship, and communities need to address racial issues head on. We believe that requires surfacing and actively working to eliminate race-based biases, systemic barriers, and the complex bureaucracy that prevents Black, Hispanic, and Indigenous entrepreneurs from reaching their full potential.

We have observed that the strategies currently in vogue to promote inclusive entrepreneurship are generally not well designed to address the underlying bias and systemic barriers faced by minority business owners. Simply putting an “inclusive” twist or spin on traditional approaches to entrepreneurial support, or addressing inclusive entrepreneurship as a special project, makes little lasting difference.


Achieving equity in entrepreneurship requires building ecosystems specifically designed to support Black, Hispanic, and Indigenous entrepreneurs, rather than working through existing systems. In most of the communities we’ve worked with, we have seen that there is a power differential and mistrust between mainstream organizations and grassroots community leaders. While we often look to mainstream organizations first for partnerships, experience has proven that the power they wield can drown out the voices of the communities we are trying to serve. Engaging Black and Brown-led organizations early on creates space for them to lead. If and when the collective - typically in the form of community councils - determines it is the right time to engage others, they can then best determine how to move forward together.


We have been using this community-centered, “inside-out” approach in our Black Wall Street Forward initiative Black Wall Street Forward is designed to help leaders in Black communities develop new narratives about the role that Black entrepreneurs can play in revitalizing the Black community and in closing the racial wealth gap, while strengthening local ecosystems designed to support those entrepreneurs. This initiative focuses on Black entrepreneurs who face the biggest barriers to success, with the expectation that if Forward Cities can crack the code for that group, the lessons from that work can also be applied to Black entrepreneurs with fewer barriers, and to Hispanic and Indigenous populations which face similar barriers.

The results of the Black Wall Street Forward initiative have been promising, and we are now in the process of expanding that work. Participants have shared that the greatest benefits have been learning about the history of thriving Black-owned businesses and business districts in their community, connecting with others in their community to launch and support new Black-owned businesses, and learning from and with other communities doing similar work.


In the course of our Black Wall Street Forward initiative and our work in more than 40 other cities across the US, we have found that building entrepreneurial support systems that can serve a more diverse population of entrepreneurs is a complex task that requires a distinctive set of skills and leaders with those skills are in short supply. The individuals leading this work currently have few opportunities to interact with and support each other across communities. Moreover, they tend to burn out quickly and are difficult to replace. This shortage of leaders is a critical constraint to expanding the ranks of underrepresented entrepreneurs, and to achieving our long-term vision of giving every entrepreneur an equitable chance to launch and grow a business that generates wealth for themselves, their families, and their communities.

In response, we are now focusing our efforts on building two action-learning networks. These networks engage individuals and communities building entrepreneurial support systems that serve a more diverse population of entrepreneurs and give them the opportunity to learn from and with each other. One network, E3 Nation, piloted in 2023 through our E3 Nation Tour, will focus on equipping community-wide entrepreneurial support systems to serve underrepresented entrepreneurs. The other network is set to  focus on building entrepreneurial support systems specifically designed to support the launch and growth of Black-owned businesses. These networks will be supported by learning labs, such as Black Wall Street Forward, designed to generate new knowledge and insights to inform the work of the networks and to build the field.