As we inched closer to December, I found myself in a familiar end-of-year headspace that many do - reflecting on the year past and casting a vision for the year ahead. But as I began that typical introspection, something unexpected happened. It occurred to me that something was different. This year was uncommon; as I reflected on 2023, it occurred to me that - as I experienced it in real time - there were many moments in which it felt as if our country was moving in a backwards trajectory in terms of economic equality.
We have seen significant threats for racialized entrepreneurs. For instance, impactful organizations like the Fearless Fund and other venture capital firms that hold funds designated for Black and/or Hispanic founders, faced legal challenges. Similarly, the Small Business Administration's (SBA) changes to their 8(a) grant program, a crucial source of support for minority-owned businesses, changed their Laws and policies, such as affirmative action, that were intended to address and prevent existing inequities brought on by historical harms such as enslavement, are now being weaponized against the very people they were originally meant to protect. In the face of these stressors, many entities, both nonprofit and for profit, whose work centers inclusion, had to stop and consider what this disturbing trend would mean for them and their work - as well as the potential risks associated with the decisions they make.
Forward Cities was no exception. In the organization’s history we have often taken a generalized approach to our mission; we have strongly advocated for inclusive entrepreneurship as a means to grow shared prosperity. That has meant exploring and addressing a wide range of barriers for entrepreneurs including but not limited to geography, gender, sector, stage, education level, and race. However, in reality, after years of deploying our research tools in dozens of communities across the country, the barrier that would inevitably surface as the most challenging and persistent barrier was race. It should come as no surprise that racial inequities in America continue to have an outsized negative impact on economic and wealth building opportunities for its citizens.
Our nation is built upon layered traumas for racialized communities: the violent appropriation of Indigenous land, the enslavement of Black people, and barbaric policies inflicted upon non-white immigrating peoples. These traumas are inextricably tied to our economy because, by their nature, they each created a stream of unearned wealth for the dominant group that they, then, could continually leverage to build and maintain more wealth - while those that were traumatized continued to be systematically excluded from the power structures that would allow them to bridge the financial gaps.
It is important to understand that these latest efforts, while disturbing, are not new or surprising. Many people with money and power will stop at nothing to ensure they maintain that money and power. Our country is rapidly changing in its demographic makeup and cultural identity. By the year 2050, the white population will be in the racial minority and it is projected to continue to decline due to a steady trend of multiracialism. The far right recognizes that the policies and numbers that have held their economic dominance in place for centuries is, now, eroding and - for the past decade or so - they have been regrouping and developing this new line of attacks on our education and capital systems in an attempt to slow down the inevitable.
Seeing this dynamic unfold in a significant and undeniable manner in 2023, it became clear that Forward Cities could no longer sit on the fence. Advocating for holistic inclusion was an admirable and lofty goal. However, it was also safe and somewhat benign. Promoting inclusion for all somewhat hampered us from calling out and addressing the very specific and most pervasive barriers being experienced by entrepreneurs in our country right now - racially motivated economic exclusion. Once we gained clarity on the problem, the question then became, ‘what will we do about it’?
"If we were to become a catalyst for systems change, we could convene, train, and equip entrepreneurial ecosystem builders that would, in turn, impact exponentially more entrepreneurs."
As I pondered this question, I was reminded of a lecture I had once attended in which the instructor had shared an anecdote about lobsters. Yes, lobsters. Stick with me here for a moment. Lobsters are invertebrates with a hard exoskeleton that does not grow. As the lobster grows inside, this exoskeleton becomes too small. To grow, a lobster must shed this old shell in a process called molting. Lobsters know when to molt primarily through internal hormonal cues influenced by external environmental factors. When the lobster senses these stresses, it knows it is time to grow.
At that point, the lobster then does something somewhat risky. During molting, the lobster must extract itself from the old shell. This process can be difficult and dangerous, as the lobster is vulnerable without its protective shell. After consuming vital nutrients from and shedding the old shell, the lobster is soft and hides in a safe place until its new shell hardens. Once the process is complete, the lobster then returns to its active life in the sea until the next time it senses those stressors that alert that it is time to grow once again.
This natural cycle of growth, retreat, and renewal can be likened to the journey of Forward Cities in 2023. Just as the lobster’s natural growth and external factors created stressors that trigger the need to grow, the ‘anti-woke’ movement that impacted racialized entrepreneurs in our nation signaled to us that it was time for us to change - to grow - in response. But we could not do that in our current ‘shell’. While we knew it would be uncomfortable, we needed to slow down and retreat to safe surroundings while we built our new shell.
We tentatively stepped (or tripped) into this journey of transformation. If we continued to only address specific barriers in specific communities, we would be severely limited in the number of communities and entrepreneurs we could impact. However, if we were to become a catalyst for systems change, we could convene, train, and equip entrepreneurial ecosystem builders that would, in turn, impact exponentially more entrepreneurs.
In order to build this new shell, we first needed to position ourselves for growth. We looked inward and determined which structures and processes would serve us in our new mission and those no longer served us. We reabsorbed the program frameworks, models, and tools that have been proven to work, pulling those forward into the design of new, innovative action learning networks. As our new ‘shell’ emerged, we immersed ourselves in a protective environment with like-minded partners for knowledge sharing and collective impact. We primarily focused our 2023 efforts in four tracks - with some truly remarkable outcomes.
Black Wall Street Forward
Thanks to our committed lead funding partner, the Truist Foundation, as well as the City of Raleigh, HUSTLE Winston-Salem, and NCIDEA, we were able to continue and successfully wrap our Black Wall Street Forward (BWSF) pilot program. That grant allowed our team the opportunity to explore ways to sustain and expand efforts in NC pilot communities, as well as build a model for potential to scale the program at a broader regional or national level in years to come. An additional grant from our new partners at the MetLife Foundation is affording us the opportunity to deepen the impact of our engagement for our BWSF Raleigh and BWSF Durham communities. Additionally, we have joined the foundation’s network of grantees in an innovative learning community designed to grow our organizational capacity. We were also grateful to have had the opportunity to work with a group of creative firms that lent their expertise to the development of the BWSF brand and our narrative change efforts: Komplex Creative, Hey Awesome Girl, and Triangle Blvd.
Main Street America
This year we had the pleasure and honor to partner with another prominent national service provider, Main Street America (MSA), to launch their new Equitable Entrepreneurial Ecosystems for Rural Communities program. As a part of that initiative, our research and program teams supported the Main Street team in exploring ways to integrate key diversity, equity, and inclusion metrics and topics into in-person training for MSA representatives from communities across the country. We traveled to and met some amazing entrepreneurial champions in nine states, expanding our own capacity to understand what diversity and inclusion looks like and means in rural America, along the way developing strategies and tools to more effectively support these communities.We’d like to share a big thanks to the MSA program team that we had the pleasure of working closely with and learning alongside: Tasha Sams, Joi Cuartero Austin, and Matt Wagner.
2023 also represented the second and final year of our SBA Community Navigator program that provided distinct recovery supports for businesses negatively impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic and addressed the longer-term and systemic biases, barriers, and bureaucratic challenges that Durham small businesses face. Through the collective engagement of our spoke organizations, the E3 Durham program served over 415 Durham entrepreneurs who enrolled in program, provided over 1,960 hours of one-on-one counseling, conducted over 300 training hours - including 20 sets of cohort programs, and helped catalyze more than $250,000 in loans and $200,000 in grants for entrepreneurs. It was our honor to serve a supporting role to the vital spoke organizations that lent their significant talents and expertise to this effort: Durham Tech Small Business Center, Echo, Infinity Bridges, Knox Street Studios, Provident1898 and the NC Central School of Business. We are also grateful for the ongoing support of our municipal ecosystem development offices of the City of Durham and Durham County.
E3 Nation Tour
This year, thanks to the support of the Kauffman Foundation we also had the opportunity to pilot our emergent national action learning network in two communities. For E3 Douglas County, we facilitated a group of diverse stakeholders in a process to explore how they might foster an ecosystem culture that equitably centers and values racialized entrepreneurial leaders. As a result of that effort, the local ecosystem is prioritizing new models of power sharing and grassroots funding. We are grateful for the collaborative of committed funding partners that supported and are continuing to champion the work moving forward: the Douglas County Office of Economic Development, Network Kansas, the City of Lawrence, the Chamber, and the Douglas County Community Foundation.
For E3 Sacramento, we facilitated a group of entrepreneurial support organizations in a process to discover how they might leverage the power of a connected community to help entrepreneurs to level up and achieve sustainable success on their terms. As a result of that effort, a group of entrepreneurial support organizations is activating a catalytic new event that directly connects entrepreneurs to the resources they need in real-time. This continuing work would not have been possible without the generous support of local partners, including Sacramento State Carlsen Center for Innovation & Entrepreneurship, Sacramento Municipal Utilities District, and the City of Sacramento.
Like the lobster transitioning from its old to new shell, these key initiatives, as well as several others over the course of year, have allowed Forward Cities to simultaneously deepen our impact in communities where we have been serving and learn vital lessons that will lend themselves to our efforts to scale our impact far into the future for communities we have yet to meet. We've built strong partnerships, launched impactful programs, and expanded our reach to communities that need us the most. As an organization, we are ending the year stronger than ever before, with a sense of clarity and purpose that is invigorating.
Looking ahead to 2024, our excitement is palpable. We are currently exploring a major opportunity to build upon the foundation we have built for E3 Durham. In the Spring, we are poised to formalize the emergent next iteration of our Black Wall Street Forward initiative - and to secure key partnerships. We are also grateful to be partnering with EcoMap, collaborating to launch the PLACE Builders fellowship in honor of Pava LaPere. This initiative promises to be a game-changer in fostering place-based, equitable ecosystem leadership.
As we step into 2024 with our new ‘shell’, let us carry the lessons and triumphs of this transformative year, as we grow stronger, more focused, and more determined to make a lasting impact. As we move into the new year we turn our focus to a refined mission: catalyzing wealth building opportunities for racialized individuals by transforming the way communities see, support, and sustain entrepreneurs. Economic and community development, entrepreneurial support, metropolitan planning, financial, and philanthropic organizations are launching or expanding programs every day to meet the needs of underrepresented entrepreneurs. Countless others are eager to learn from and leverage lessons and experiences. Forward Cities and our partners can catalyze this movement through the curation of action-learning networks - like BWSF and PLACE Builders - that convene practitioners to build skills/expertise and share promising practices.
As we embark on this new chapter, I am filled with optimism and enthusiasm. The journey of Forward Cities is a testament to the fact that we are well-positioned for the sea of great possibilities.
We invite you to swim along!
If you’d be interested in learning more about, participating in, or partnering on Forward Cities emerging action learning networks, click here to complete our interest form and let’s start a conversation!
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
President & CEO, Forward Cities
Fay serves as the President & CEO of Forward Cities, where she oversees organizational strategy. In addition, Fay is a dedicated advocate for the emerging profession of ecosystem building, and as a founding member of Ecosystems Unite. Beyond her formal roles, she is a sought after presenter, trainer, and thought leader on the topic of equitable entrepreneurial ecosystem building. Never one to be content with status quo, Fay has also recently begun addressing a new need in local communities: ecosystem healing–helping pivot ecosystems and institutions in this time of the dual COVID-19 and systemic racial injustice pandemics.