This blog contains personal reflections from Fay Horwitt, President of Forward Cities, and curriculum content developed by Fay Horwitt and Shayla Herndon-Edmunds, Director of Talent Development for Forward Cities–herself a successful Black womanpreneur and founder of Coach Shayla and OMG Herbal Bar.
We currently stand as a nation divided, at place and time like no other in our history. We are at the ultimate crossroads, where we will either give into collective but disparate fears and relive our blood-stained past, or deeply listen to better angels of our nature and, together, push through those fears to a profound unity unlike anything this world has known.
We stand at a time when the words of generations of civil rights leaders and the word of law they collectively helped to rewrite are now, clearly, unable to affect the one thing required for true equity–power and the actions of those that wield it. While words alone cannot change minds, words do carry a certain power of their own; they can impart knowledge, spark new ideas, invoke empathy, touch the soul, and inspire the change-makers that can upend antiquated power structures.
Entrepreneurship, at this unprecedented crossroads, is a vehicle with the potential to disrupt our current national stalemate and propel us down the right and righteous road toward the actualization of true equity. Humans are creative beings; the creation of new ideas that solve problems and address needs is a power that cannot be taken away. Author and entrepreneurial activist Victor Hwang takes it one bold step forward; with his new Right to Start movement, he extends this stirring call to would-be entrepreneurs with words that have the potential to touch the creative heartbeat in us all: “Your ideas and dreams are the spark of the future.”
Hwang has developed a "campaign to rebuild the American economy by unleashing entrepreneurial opportunity for everyone, regardless of race, place, gender, background, heredity, circumstance." He astutely asserts that “we are all starters. More than ever, we need starters to drive economic recovery and advance economic justice.”
"Entrepreneurship, at this unprecedented crossroads, is a vehicle with the potential to disrupt our current national stalemate and propel us down the right and righteous road toward the actualization of true equity.."
A Vehicle For Change
If entrepreneurship is the vehicle that will move us down the road to equity and entrepreneurs are in the driver’s seat, then entrepreneurial ecosystems are the fuel they need to start the engine and keep rolling toward their destination. That being the case, how can we effectively meet the call that this moment in time demands and what words will we, as ecosystem builders, use to inform and inspire our own work and role in this journey?
Since our founding in 2014, Forward Cities has worked with over twenty cities nationally to foster stronger and more equitable entrepreneurial ecosystems. Through our work, and as a result of the learnings and experiences that have emerged through it, we have adopted a framing lexicon that speaks to the vital cultural structures that must be in place to ensure equity for every entrepreneur in an ecosystem. A shared understanding and identification of these structures and the barriers to their adoption is a crucial first step for any ecosystem that seeks to better understand and address the systemic issues that lead to inequity.
Due to COVID-19 and a heightened awareness of racial and economic inequities, it is clear that strong, connected support systems—particularly for New Majority business owners—are more important than ever. To that end, we believe we hold a sacred responsibility to share this framing as a way to equip ecosystem stakeholders everywhere with a foundational understanding of these crucial concepts so that they can, in turn, help bring greater understanding into their local ecosystems.
This work cannot be done alone. ABIDE embodies Forward Cities’ organizational commitment to empowering and helping ecosystem leaders foster a culture of Access, Belonging, Inclusion, Diversity, and Equity. We equip organizational staff and leaders to render more equitable and inclusive service, support, and programming for under-connected entrepreneurs. But even in the naming of the framework, we encountered a dichotomy that gave us an even deeper understanding of the need for it and the role that cultural identity can shape perspectives on this work and even the very meaning of words themselves.
When I first floated the idea of the framework and acronym in a collaboration session with our CEO, Christopher Gergen, I remember being struck by the response. He shared that, while the framework resonated with him, the acronym didn’t sit as well. When I asked why, he explained that it was because ‘to abide’ meant to be forced to adhere to a set of rules and that that might not be the tone we wanted to convey. I explained to him that my connection to the word was something very different. I shared that ‘to abide’ was a term that was a part of my faith background, having grown up in the Black Christian church. There were numerous bible verses and hymns that spoke to the comfort and peace that comes if you ‘abide in’ Christ. This deeper cultural meaning was passed down through generations and speaks where my ancestors, enslaved into order to build the foundations of wealth for this nation, found the strength, courage, and patience to endure the rule of law of oppressors and to overcome.
The reality is that the word abide does, indeed, have at least two different meanings: 1) to accept without objection and 2) to remain stable or fixed in a state. For Christopher, he feared that our target audience might perceive that we sought to determine a set of fixed rules that made them feel pressured to change. From my perspective, I saw it as promoting the concept that if ecosystem leaders were to develop a consistency of stability in these cultural structures that it would lead to their collective desired outcome.
Even though we were two individuals deeply committed to racial equity for entrepreneurs, our very different cultural identities meant that while we were seeking the same ultimate destination, the roads we might take to get there and the lenses we see the roads through are very different—and words matter.
So it is with people of color and our allies; so it is with our nation. That realization also led to the epiphany that it would not only be enough to just rattle off the words that make up the acronym, but that we must also clarify the meaning of each of the words within the framework so that all stakeholders have a shared and common understanding.
Here are the basic building blocks of the framework, defined through the lens of the work we do in community every day and the change we seek to inspire through them.
- Access | Equal opportunities for every entrepreneur to find, reach, utilize, understand, and explore resources, learn skills, and acquire both the human and financial capital required to successfully ideate, launch, operate and grow a business.
- Belonging | The existence and equitable support of spaces, places, and affinity groups where entrepreneurs can find a sense of identity, acceptance, and support amongst others, particularly where there is a common or shared sector, experience, culture, or demography.
- Inclusion | Intentional behaviors that recognize, include, and integrate diverse people groups, their perspectives, and (sometimes) unique needs into their organization, leadership, programming, and offerings.
- Diversity | Intentional efforts to reach and serve entrepreneurs from all people groups, regardless of race, gender identity, country of origin, language, physical ability, education level, veteran status, criminal history, area of residence, or any other demographic distinction.
- Equity | Compensatory practices, programs, offerings, funding, positions and decision-making authority that levels the playing field for every entrepreneur, leader, and stakeholder.
So, where do you start? How do you move your ecosystem toward an ABIDE reality? What does it mean to create an equitable entrepreneurial ecosystem? And, how will you know that we have?
The first thing to understand is that in order for an ecosystem to move forward, it must first look back. As I was discussing this topic with fellow ecosystem builder and colleague Paulo Gregory-Harris, founder of Cohado Inc, he reminded me that, not surprisingly, we need only to look to an African symbol to illustrate this concept.
Wikipedia lists Sankofa as a word in the Twi language of Ghana that translates to "go back and get it" and also refers to the Bono Adinkra symbol represented either with a stylized heart shape or by a bird with its head turned backwards while its feet face forward carrying a precious egg in its mouth. Sankofa is often associated with the proverb, “Se wo were fi na wosankofa a yenkyi," which translates as "it is not wrong to go back for that which you have forgotten." The sankofa bird has often been adopted as an important symbol in an African American and African Diaspora context to represent the need to reflect on the past to build a successful future. That is exactly where ecosystem builders must start to help their communities begin the healing process that can lead to a better future.
The ABIDE approach takes that into account, moving communities through a journey from the past to the present, and then forward to the future they collectively seek to bring about.
- Past. The first step is to explore how U.S. history, identity, and culture have contributed to the creation and reinforcement of structural and institutional racism in the United States. With this understanding of what has created the need for our focus on access, belonging, inclusion, diversity, and equity, participants begin to recognize both their personal and professional connection to equity and inequity.
- Present. Next one must explore how biases in decision making, policy, and organizational practices are currently influencing how individuals and organizations function in the ecosystem. With this understanding of how our bias impacts planning, recruitment, programming, and decision-making in entrepreneurial support organizations, participants are equipped to learn a set of practices for identifying and challenging bias, bureaucracy, and barriers.
- Future. When we understand how history has shaped the creation and evolution of institutional and structural racism and are able to identify the ways in which such inequities manifest in our communities and organizations, we are empowered to become change agents and allies. This brings a deeper understanding of our own identities, power, and privilege. As a result, we are open to learning what is required of change agents and allies who wish to create access, belonging, inclusion, diversity, and equity.
- Now. Knowledge is toothless without action. With a deeper understanding of the past, present, and future, leaders are then primed to do the intentional work required to co-create and sustain an equitable entrepreneurial ecosystem, which is where the Forward Cities E3 Scorecard and capacity-building engagements pick up, providing communities with a tools to conduct a self-assessment of the health and equity of their ecosystem so they can determine what areas they most need to address to actualize the ABIDE framework in their community.
The Winding Road
With each step of the ABIDE journey, you and/or your organization will grow and gain in ways you can’t begin to imagine. You will develop an understanding and empathy for the entrepreneurial journey for under-connected, under-valued, under-resourced, and under-invested entrepreneurs and small business owners.
You will learn a repertoire of inclusive language and practices for engaging currently disenfranchised entrepreneurs, small business owners, and under-connected ESOs. You will develop the ability to apply equitable strategies for mitigating unconscious bias in recruitment, staffing, and outreach. You will feel a readiness to engage in more inclusive programming and collaboration. You will harness the ability to create spaces of belonging and opportunities for equitable access. Most importantly, you will model a commitment to demonstrating equitable leadership.
Make no mistake. This work is not easy. The road ahead is a long, arduous, and winding one. Working towards true equity in your ecosystem will not be easy and you will take some hits; but the destination will make every mile of the journey worth it.
As ecosystem and community leaders, we must meet this challenge head on and with deliberation. We get to decide whose words and voices matter to us, the loud minority or the New Majority. It is not enough to speak the words of change, we must fill up our tanks, put the pedal to the metal and drive together toward a future of equity for every entrepreneur.