Like most everyone else, I've not slept a lot these past two weeks. What happened to George Floyd is anguishing. It's just unfathomable that this could happen in America today.
The pain our black friends, co-workers, colleagues and neighbors feel is deep and heart-rending. But it's not new. We don't need any proof (although there's plenty of it) to know that systemic racism still plagues this great country today. The protests in our own city streets and around the world have underscored how widespread the frustration and anger over racial inequality is.
It's time for real change.
With an issue this big, though, it's easy to think you can't make a difference. That's normal. Our brains tend to get overwhelmed by problems that are bigger and more complex than we can readily solve on our own.
But don't allow yourself to be paralyzed, especially not on something this important. Shift your mindset to believe you can make a difference – especially as a leader. Then do something about it.
Take some action, right where you are. If we all do something positive in our sphere of influence, things will get better.
Take some action
I've been inspired to see so many leaders stepping up – and showing up – right now. Leading with their hearts and a healthy dose of humility to listen, learn and have constructive dialogue about the importance of equality and respect for everyone regardless of the color of their skin.
But it's important that we don't just talk the talk. As leaders, we need to act.
If you're still a little unsure of what you can do, I've got three ways you can make a difference. You'll quickly see these ideas are all tied to a lifelong passion of mine: entrepreneurship. My practical suggestions are ways you can help level the playing field in the marketplace by buying from, investing in, joining, mentoring or championing black entrepreneurs and their companies. Why? Because that can make a huge difference.
Here's my list. It barely scratches the surface. But hopefully, it will give you some ideas of what you can do to make a positive difference. I've also included some details about and contact information for people and companies I've worked with and have known through the years who could serve as strong partners for you -- and why I recommend them.
1. Invest in black-owned and -led companies
Part of my journey these days includes being an investor and advisor in two venture capital firms, one of which is Valor Ventures, an Atlanta-based seed-stage venture capital firm that invests in start-ups led by people of color or women.
Our mission as a VC firm is to make inclusion the new normal. This mission and focus has really resonated with me, and I am excited to do what I can to help smart, savvy companies grow who might have been overlooked by investors in the past.
I realize not everyone is at a point in their life where they can invest in venture capital opportunities. But if you are or you know someone who is, now is a great time to make inclusion a core investing strategy. If not, you can still learn more now, and then when the time is right you'll have the information you need.
As is so well stated by Valor's founder, Lisa Calhoun, inclusive investing delivers a one-two punch. Not only is the right thing to do, it's an incredibly smart thing to do. "Research demonstrates it's the most financially rewarding approach as well as a clear moral imperative." According to Kauffman Fellows research, ethnically diverse founders return 30% more capital to investors over the last 10 years and across 20,000 startups. That's compelling.
Be an angel investor
Valor does more than investing. We also host an event twice a year called Start-Up Runway that gives top under-represented founders a chance to pitch their business to raise capital or attract angel investors.
So even if you're not ready to do VC investing, you can become an angel investor that requires a much smaller check that can still make a big difference for an entrepreneur. Check out the videos of the finalists and winners from our most recent competition, held just two weeks ago.
Some other useful links:
●Here is our Inclusion Premium Investing Philosophy
● Check out our founders here
● Resources for inclusive investing
● Valor-hosted virtual events and resources for founders and the inclusive ecosystem
Find out more about inclusive investing
Lisa and I are going to be hosting a webinar to talk in detail about inclusive investing. If you'd like to learn a little more, please plan to join us. Mark your calendars now:
● Wednesday, June 24, noon CDT/1:00 EDT.
● You can register here.
2. Do business with black-owned and -led companies
This is a simple step you can take now. As you consider where/who/how to do business with, take a closer look at sharp, competitive companies you might not have known about. Here are some I personally know of. But I am sure you have many in your own circle of influence you could be supporting.
Lease accounting software
This is an amazing SaaS company that is growing like crazy because they have figured out how to solve a pressing need in the marketplace -- in this case, lease accounting complexity. They are serving clients well and leaning into their opportunities. Valor is an investor in their first round of funding, which was led by Goldman Sachs.
Here is a video interview of CEO George Azih, hosted by Lisa. George shares how he built LeaseQuery, how he developed an MVP, and his tips for building a successful software business as a nontechnical founder.
George is a very inspiring leader. This video is ideal for founders who are figuring out what they need to do to build their dreams -- or for anyone who wants to be inspired about how to be a successful CEO. Well worth a watch.
Lauren Welsey Wilson and ColorComm Network
ColorComm Network is the nation's leading women's platform addressing diversity and inclusion across the communications, marketing, advertising, and media industries. My friend, Lauren Wesley Wilson, is the brains behind it all.
I first met Lauren while moderating a panel at the 2013 PRWeek conference. Not only was she passionate about her new organization, ColorComm, but articulate and convincing about how diversity could drive business. She had us all at hello.
As a young professional, Lauren served as communications director for a Texas congresswoman and worked on behalf of corporate clients for two global PR firms. Through her experiences, she became determined to address the issue of diversity – specifically for women of color. Her mission: to see more of them in senior leadership positions.
Through her tenacity and vision, Lauren has grown ColorComm from a small group in Washington D.C. to a national membership organization with chapters in nine cities: New York, Washington, DC, Chicago, Atlanta, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Dallas, Houston, Miami, and London.
She didn't stop there. Lauren launched C2, an annual conference featuring nationally recognized speakers such as Arianna Huffington, Ann Curry and Lisa Ling. She is regularly featured in publications like Inc., ESSENCE and The Huffington Post and continues to strengthen the voices of those who are often underrepresented.
I had the privilege of serving on the ColorComm board for several years and am constantly impressed with Lauren's drive and willingness to take risks. She is an entrepreneur through and through, and there is no doubt her biggest ideas are yet to come.
The organization's mission is two-fold:
• Create connections for like-minded women
• Build a strong network of leaders by creating mentors/mentees, business relationships and friendships.
ColorComm produces over 100 local programs a year. These days they're doing a lot of online programming to help members stay connected, learn and grow. Recent topics have focused on corporate activism, the importance of D&I now more than ever, wealth-building, closing the wage gap for women of color, and how to start a business during these times.
"People want to be in community," Lauren told me when we spoke earlier this week. "The pandemic brought this home to everyone, but we knew that long ago and have always focused on helping our members create meaningful connections."
Join the network
You can join ColorComm and become part of a supportive community of smart professional women who can help up-level your professional and personal development. Your membership gives you access to:
• People of influence in the media world
• Professional development
• Timely topics and career advice
• Expanded network
• Increased visibility
• Giving-back opportunities
A recent membership drive brought in more than 100 members, Lauren told me, many of whom are looking to understand more from the conversations that are happening in this space and the challenges happening for people of color in corporate America.
Digital marketing and executive branding
This Austin-based firm supports thought leaders and executives looking to build their personal brand. If you've ever thought about writing a book, branching out to start your own consultancy or business, or building a thought-leadership blog or platform online, this is a group you should strongly consider. Their work is exceptional, and I can say that with confidence because they handle the digital marketing needs for my consultancy.
Founder Whitney Gaines has been a trusted advisor to me since I first wrote my book and launched elisemitchell.com several years ago. Under her leadership, their work has been featured in Harvard Business Review, Fortune, HuffPost and more.
While I write all my own content, her team supports the technical and digital needs of my website, email marketing, social media, webinars, online courses and virtual leadership offerings. I owe so much to them for their wise advice, counsel and responsive support, and I highly recommend them to you.
Make-up, skin care and fragrance products for men and women
Marico is a long-time friend of mine and one of the true stars in the Mary Kay network. As a sales director, she oversees a team of 68 women. Today she is driving her fifth car earned through her success with the company.
I've known Marico for more than 20 years, since our daughters played together in the church nursery. She has always been a thoughtful, kind and savvy entrepreneur who makes you feel like you're the only customer she has. She has style and deep knowledge about how to help you look your best. She knows her products inside and out.
But she's far more than that. Marico is also a blogger and speaker who has a passion for sharing the word of God with other women. She is a born encourager and loves to share the stories of how God's love, grace, favor, and mercy have changed her life.
Marico actively supports women who have been victims of domestic violence. Among her many volunteer efforts, every holiday season, she organizes donations to benefit the Peace at Home women's shelter to help those who need and deserve our support on the path to finding a better life for themselves and their children.
As you can readily guess, I'm always inspired by any time I get to have with Marico. You will be too. I highly recommend her. She's gone virtual these days and can do facials and special events via Zoom. Give her a call.
I'm sure you can find a list in your community, but if not here are other black-owned businesses and entrepreneurs you can support:
● James Beard's list of black-owned businesses by city
● Crunchbase's list of 25 black entrepreneurs who are building great companies
● People magazine's list of black-owned food, fashion, home and beauty businesses you can shop right now to show your support
3. Mentor, champion and support young black professionals and youth
There is nothing more rewarding than mentoring – and being reverse mentored – by young professionals. I've always found these relationships to be enriching to my personal and professional life.
As a leader, you can make a difference for young professionals of color who would benefit from your knowledge and influence. Open a door for them, introduce them, advise and champion them. You can do this informally anytime. But I also encourage you to see what your company offers – or could offer – to expand support for African-American young professionals. Then raise your hand to get involved.
There are also countless non-profits, community organizations and schools that are focused on equipping youth to become all they can be. Here is one I would like to suggest.
Charter school for young men
This relatively new school offers a liberal arts education to Baltimore's next generation of young black men, ensuring that they can lead and serve their community, our nation and our world.
While I don't know the school from first-hand experience other than as a donor, I do know the founder, Jack Pannell. Jack is one of the most inspiring and dedicated advocates for young people that I know. He is a faith-oriented leader who leads with his heart as well as his head. He is focused on equipping and empowering young men to be all they can be.
Jack founded the school based on his inspiration drawn from five smooth stones, which you might recognize comes from the story of David and Goliath in the Bible. As a shepherd boy, David used five smooth stones to slay the giant and become a great leader.
The school's vision is for "every boy attending to become as simply and powerfully equipped as David." To that end, each Baltimore Collegiate scholar is trained to develop five virtues: integrity, wisdom, courage, compassion and resilience. These are the five smooth stones that will help them overcome the challenges they will face in life.
You can donate to the Five Smooth Stones Foundation here and make a difference in the lives of young black men, (many of whom I'm sure will become great entrepreneurs in the future!).
There are so many other deserving entrepreneurs and companies we could list -- and so many more things we can each do. But these are just a few ideas I wanted to share to get you started thinking and acting.
Please join me, and together let's get further down the road a lot faster to achieving racial equality in the marketplace. Your time, money and influence can make a difference.