At Forward Cities, we highly value collaboration. Our engagements are fueled by listening to the voices of the community and co-designing the future of their ecosystem. One way we catalyze collaboration is through tours of local organizations. Forward Cities’ Community Innovation team along with the Executive Director of local nonprofit Black Orlando Tech, Rose Lejiste, held meetings with Entrepreneurial Support Organizations (ESOs) dedicated to strengthening their local entrepreneurial ecosystem in Orange County/Orlando, FL.
These virtual tours (which would usually be held in person before the COVID-19 pandemic) provide a space for community leaders to share what they’ve learned in their work—and help mold ours in the process. Participants are invited to speak candidly about their valuable lived experiences, what they’ve learned about the challenges to entrepreneurship in their community, and what they see as opportunities for greater equity in the entrepreneurial ecosystem.
What We’ve Learned About the Orlando Entrepreneurial Ecosystem
In their own words, each of these founders and leaders shared their experiences and thoughts on the state of entrepreneurship for Black businesses in Orlando. Here’s what we’ve learned:
Lack of Accessible Resources
Beginning with the COVID pandemic, 50% of Black-owned businesses have closed due to lack of access to capital. This unprecedented event heavily challenged the entrepreneurs who were struggling to survive even before it began. This problem is due to the lack of accessible resources. The resources that are there (training, financing, mentoring, etc), it seems, are not marketed well. In other words, those who need them the most aren’t aware they exist. Some are especially hard to reach for early-stage entrepreneurs, many of which are balancing a full-time job and raising a family. There aren’t enough entrepreneurial support services available to them on their time.
Here’s a quote from one of the tour participants: “There’s so many things this world can benefit from that take hustle to get, but not everyone can do that - especially when they don’t have the time to (i.e. raising a family). In those early stages, you don’t have the guidance or the opportunity or time to get resources, you most likely will have a difficult time continuing on; having to choose between family, livelihood, and your business.” According to McKinsey, of the 20 percent of Black Americans that start businesses, only 4 percent survive the start-up stage.
Lack of Education & Connectivity
But having resources is only half the battle; education is the other. Even if you get funding, how do you manage it? If you don’t know the value of your business, then how can you effectively ask for the funding you need? The lack of financial literacy, especially in knowing how to value your company, was mentioned in multiple tours. Basic business knowledge is needed for many entrepreneurs to get off the ground. Some would find it helpful just to learn from a community of founders. Just that connection to someone who’s been through it, learning what they did, where others like you lie, and the problems they’re facing would be worthwhile. However, there’s a lack of connectivity in the ecosystem between entrepreneurial veterans, supporters, and current startups, that doesn’t provide the holistic education founders need.
“If you have a good village and team, you can make it past the early stage - but if you don’t, then that lack of education on basic business management can become an issue” - Tour Participant
Lack of Confidence
Beyond entrepreneurs knowing what they need, it seems not enough ask for it. There’s a lack of confidence from many Black entrepreneurs to ask for the capital they may need to grow. Without considering funding options, many entrepreneurs tend to bootstrap themselves, making do with what they have. This isn’t a problem of there being enough money, but a problem of there being enough diversity in founders who ask for it. If an investor is looking to give a viable startup $5 million, how would he know this Black-owned business needs it? Some Black-owned businesses truly could use the help, but don’t feel equipped nor included in the conversations about startup investments.
“Black entrepreneurs are taught not to ask for money, or get into debt. However, a non-Black entrepreneur has the confidence to ask anyone for the money they need to fund their dream, and do so unapologetically. Eventually the non-Black entrepreneur will hear a yes, while the Black entrepreneur will never get to a yes if they never ask.” - Tour Participant
Lack of Guidance
Finally, the entrepreneurial journey is tough when you're walking it alone. Too many entrepreneurs are going along the same paths as others before them, but wouldn't know it since there isn't a clear roadmap. Orlando is in need of an entrepreneurial journey roadmap for aspiring and new entrepreneurs. A clear, outlined path that describes the stages of building a business, what to do at each stage, who is a resource for what, and what difficulties founders may face. Along that roadmap, there should be "rest stops" for mental health. Every entrepreneur knows that mental health is a challenge when building a new business - how are we preventing that challenge for new entrepreneurs?
"Think about a baby in the incubator of a womb - their every need is anticipated. We don't do that in entrepreneurship incubators - it's usually reactive." - Tour Participant
Who We’ve Met With
The Innovation Council for the Orlando engagement selected the first set of organizations they felt would provide a wide-breadth understanding of the ecosystem. At the end of each session, we asked participants to provide a list of other organizations they believe could help. Here’s who we’ve met with so far:
We first met with the President of the African American Chamber of Commerce, Tanisha Nunn Gary, who’s been with the organization for more than three years. The chamber aims to support black-owned businesses in Florida through entrepreneurship training, development, and access to capital. Their main focus is on early stage startups and providing help for them to scale.
Regine Bonneau is the CEO of RB Advisory, a cybersecurity advisory firm with headquarters in Winter Park, Florida that offers cyber security services to businesses worldwide. RB focuses on cyber risk management for small to medium enterprises. They strive to answer: How do we help entrepreneurs understand what a cyber risk is to them?
Black Business Orlando
Mike Felix is the founder of BBOFlorida (Black Business of Florida), BBO (Black Business Orlando), Guerilla Launch, and co-founder of Black Orlando Tech. The streamlining mission in all of the organizations he’s founded is that they strive to educate, empower, and expand Black enterprises and resources. Guerilla Launch works closely with owners enabling them to create sales pipelines using tech. They teach entrepreneurs how to conceptualize what a successful sales pipeline looks like.
Ben Hoyer is the COO, and Casey Field the Program Manager, of Rally is a vibrant ecosystem of entrepreneurs, mentors, investors, corporate advocates, and higher education institutions addressing intractable social, economic, or environmental problems by accelerating the growth of world-class social entrepreneurs. Rally aims to release early-stage social-preneurs (of social enterprises) to solve problems in the world. They focus on collaborating with a disproportionate representation of women and founders of color because Rally believes they’re more acquainted with the problems social enterprises hope to solve.
Stefan Gilliam is one of the founders of Legacy Ventures, a 501(c)(3) built to help develop young people as entrepreneurs by providing them with micro-grants, strategy, and guidance throughout the entrepreneurial journey. Legacy strives to help young people understand what entrepreneurship really is; not just owning a business, but strategizing, selling, hiring for, and financing a business. They believe we can create pathways to success if we start with the youth.