Shelly Bell has done it all. She’s been a high school teacher, computer scientist, CEO, and an entrepreneur at the helm of several businesses.
In 2016, she launched Black Girl Ventures, an organization that aims to provide access to capital for Black and Brown women entrepreneurs in the business and tech sectors, using support and training as tools to tackle issues of poverty and wealth building.
“We operate under the core values to create social capital, financial literacy, and financial capital for black and brown female founders,” said Bell.
One of the organization’s main programs is the Black Girl Ventures Pitch Competition, which makes its way across the East Coast each year. The competition works with local community members and different funders and entrepreneurs, charges a small entry fee, then uses that money to start a micro-fund for the winner.
Since its inception, the pitch competition has connected 45 percent of its participants to investors, and half have been accepted into accelerators and incubators after participating.
“Our following has grown to reach over 30 thousand people and our alumni includes some amazing women entrepreneurs.”
Some of which include Brittany Young, founder of B360, an organization that helps transfer inner city kids’ knowledge of dirt bikes into engineering careers; And Takia Ross, who is the founder of Accessmatized, which is the first mobile makeup studio in Baltimore, Maryland.
The future for Black Girl Ventures looks bright. With an increasing alumni base, a steady stream of donations — the organization has raised over $90,000 in community donations and partnerships — and big national partners like Google and Bumble, the organization could be a force for years to come.
We caught up with Bell to talk about how she got started, her biggest challenges when launching Black Girl Ventures, and why funding black and brown entrepreneurs is so important to her.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
EM: What fueled the idea behind Black Girl Ventures?
SB: The fuel for BGV came from the lack of visibility of women like me. I am “too vocal” about change for traditional employment. I’m too artsy/non-traditional for the entrepreneurs who require “professional attire” or business casual clothing to attend networking events and workshops. I’m too colorful to just blend in. I am a mother, unmarried, living my best free life and I just didn’t see a lot of space in the world to be authentic about entrepreneurship. As a performance poet, I could attend an open mic any night and have an audience readily available to listen to my authentic story. As an entrepreneur, that kind of consistent space was non-existent. Couple the need for community with the need for capital and you have the formula for thriving in business as a woman of color.
EM: What was one of your biggest challenges while trying to get Black Girl Ventures off the ground?
SB: To be completely transparent, personal development has been one of my biggest challenges. There is no guide to how you transition from leading a few people to leading thousands. I have always been a leader. I’ve been organizing events of varying sizes for 8 years now. I am amazing at executing tasks, accomplishing goals and authentically gathering people.
However, Black Girl Ventures feels different. At every event, I have a prep conversation with participants. To see the motivations, fears, and readiness of a woman founder about to hit the stage to pitch her business knowing that this initiative is a part of the reason someone could take their life to the next level is phenomenal. It is also a huge responsibility. I’ve frequently asked myself how do I keep growing in leadership? It can be difficult to find that next step. Fortunately, I have aligned myself with really great relationships with advisors who have helped me find those next steps.
I have also learned that in order to maximize the relationships I’ve obtained I still have to have the self-confidence and self-awareness to make an ask. There hasn’t been a shortage of people who need help or who want to help, but I first have to inquire about help in order to get it. Self-awareness, self-trust, self-confidence, and radical self-love are not finite lessons learned. I am constantly evolving as a person while helping other people evolve personally and professionally. I try to share everything I learn hoping that someone will gain insight that I didn’t find. I’m really interested in seeing how far “real talk” can be spread. How many authentic conversations can I have with people? How can I scale authenticity that results in business success for me and any underrepresented founder I can reach?
EM: As Black Girl Ventures continues to grow and expand its network across the East Coast, what goals do you wish to accomplish in 2019?
SB: Black Girl Ventures has held competitions in Austin (SXSW), Atlanta, Chicago, Baltimore, Philadelphia, New York, and D.C. Our goals for 2019 are to expand the pitch competition to 10 cities, secure 5 new large sponsorships, and to find an awesome foundation who “gets us” and is willing to engage in helping us develop tools that give us insight on how to serve underrepresented founders. We want to amplify more voices, help more women grow their businesses and grow our network of investors. We are also preparing to launch a pitch boot camp that covers everything from the application process to stage presence. We focus on asking ourselves questions that shape our goals and growth strategy. One of the questions we are asking ourselves is “How do we find more Black/Brown women founders with ideas?”
For years, entrepreneurial support has looked like sets of training courses and launching funds. We have positioned ourselves slightly more unique than that. The current model of entrepreneurship support is still heavily based on the K-12 education model which has been failing oppressed people for decades. Instead of finding the smartest participants, we sort of trip upon genius, then believe that it is uncommon. We recognize that while entrepreneurship in America is declining, Black women are starting business 6 times faster than others. When lacking access to capital, you have no choice but to innovate. Based on the math, it is apparent that Black/Brown women are the fastest growing innovative segment, the fastest growing employable segment, and the most agile creative segment in the country. We plan to provide a lab environment for every Black/Brown mad science-like mind out there.