While the landscape of business ownership in the U.S. continues to be dominated by white men, these demographics are rapidly changing. As the number of new entrepreneurs continues to rise — increasing 15 percent between 2014 and 2016 alone, according to the Koffman Foundation — diversity among this population is also growing.
To encourage even further progress in this area, many nonprofits have made it their mission to provide services and support tailored to the unique needs of and challenges faced by these growing segments of the entrepreneurial population — including minorities, women, LGBTQ individuals, and veterans.
Veterans with Disabilities
The Entrepreneurship Bootcamp for Veterans with Disabilities (EBV) offers business development training and support to service members who became disabled while in the line of duty. Founded at Syracuse University (SU) in 2007 by Michael Haynie, PhD, vice chancellor for strategic initiatives and innovation, EBV has graduated more than 1,300 veterans with disabilities. Since its founding, it has become a national program facilitated by 10 universities and a vast network of educational and industry volunteers.
“[Haynie] realized that veterans transitioning out of the military, especially those who were disabled, were in need of a program that would help them craft their own vocation or start their own business,” says Misty Stutsman, director of SU’s Center of Excellence for Veteran Entrepreneurship. “It immediately became something that gained a lot of traction and caught the attention of other universities.”
EBV accepts roughly 30 veterans a year who are in the early phases of starting a business. However, Stutsman says EBV makes a point of offering assistance even to those individuals it is unable to accept into the cohort; they are allowed to participate in a follow-up program that provides workshops and trainings to help them develop a business plan.
The 30 EBV participants are assigned to one of the 10 partner universities. Because the program has rolling admissions, the schools offer it at different times throughout the year, Stutsman explains. Each college provides the same fundamental model of education and support, which includes three components — a 30-day online course, a weeklong campus residency, and support services.
“The online phase gets the vets to understand more about their own business goals and the fundamentals of entrepreneurship,” says Stutsman. “During that time, we also want them to be looking at market validation, such as getting feedback from customers and finding out if their business idea is valid.” Following the online course, the residency program allows participants to engage with other veterans in their cohort, attend a full week of lectures, and access advising offered by professors, industry experts, and EBV alumni.
The third and final phase provides veterans with 12 months of access to pro-bono business support services. These include advisement and consultation from EBV’s vast network of education and industry experts as well as volunteer services from professional accountants, designers, marketers, and more.
EBV is funded through SU’s Institute for Veterans and Military Families (IVMF), the partner schools, and corporate partners, and it’s valued at approximately $550,000, according to Stutsman. She says EBV also covers travel costs and any additional services the participants may need to accommodate a disability.
Once veterans complete the final phase of the program, they continue to have access to EBV and IVMF support services, including everything from advisement to resources, Stutsman says. “Once you’re part of the EBV and IVMF family, you stay a part of it,” she says. “We’re going to continue to work with you and invest in you as much as possible.”
People of Color
Arizona State University’s (ASU) Office of Knowledge Enterprise Development is dedicated to advancing research, partnerships, and resources that lead to economic development in Phoenix and beyond. The office’s Entrepreneurship + Innovation division (E and I) creates and oversees programs to support minority business owners in local underserved communities and is specifically focused on diversifying the field and “broadening the definition of entrepreneurship,” says Ji Mi Choi, associate vice president of knowledge enterprise development.
“Entrepreneurship takes many forms, and entrepreneurial thinking can be empowering for many people, … especially young people and marginalized communities,” says Choi. “We show these populations that there are resources available for them and that their dreams and ambitions are as valid as any other [entrepreneur’s].”
The division’s Prepped program supports underrepresented individuals in developing mobile food businesses, such as food trucks and catering companies, which Choi says are popular ventures for low-income, minority entrepreneurs because they require little initial capital. Like all of E and I’s endeavors, Prepped leverages ASU’s extensive resources to provide comprehensive support. Faculty members from the business school offer training on topics such as finance planning and marketing strategies.
E and I also recruits local experts to work with program participants and share their personal experiences. “We’ve been able to bring in some very well-known chefs and restaurateurs to share their best practices and their stories of what it’s like to grow your own business,” Choi says.
The program consists of a 10-week training for teams — these comprise individual entrepreneurs or a group of partners — that are preparing to launch or have recently opened a mobile food business. Since Prepped began last fall, 21 teams have completed the program. Choi says that at the end, the businesses had experienced a collective revenue increase of 240 percent. Additionally, she says 92 percent of participants were people of color.
E and I also hosts a program called Poder — the Spanish word for “power” or “ability” — to provide entrepreneurial training to students in the Maricopa County Community College District (MCCCD), which has a student population that is 45 percent minority, according to the institution’s website. “We wanted to work in a community college setting to encourage these populations and help them see entrepreneurship as a viable path,” Choi explains.
While Poder is free, it does not count toward academic credit. To participate in the four-week program, individuals have to be enrolled in at least one credit hour at an MCCCD institution. Both ASU and MCCCD faculty instruct students through Poder, which takes place on MCCCD campuses.
“Poder exposes students to the idea of entrepreneurship and to the resources and technologies that can grow a business,” Choi explains. They are also coached on how to present a business idea and invited to participate in ASU’s annual pitch competition, in which they can win up to $5,000 in seed money. Thus far, 125 students, ranging in age from 17 to 65, have completed Poder — 77 percent of whom were from a minority group.
Future entrepreneurs who identify as LGBTQ can find professional support through Reaching Out MBA (ROMBA). Originally founded as an association for LGBTQ individuals pursuing graduate degrees in business, ROMBA now comprises a global network of LGBTQ business students and professionals — including those who aspire to start their own businesses. “The idea behind Reaching Out MBA is that by connecting all of these people together, we can have a greater impact on not only individual careers, but also on the LGBTQ community as a whole,” says Matt Kidd, executive director of ROMBA.
One of the organization’s primary offerings is a fellowship program that awards $2.5 million in scholarships to LGBTQ MBA students each year. It accepts roughly 50 individuals annually, some of whom have expressed an interest in wanting to start their own business either while still in school or immediately following graduation, says Kidd. “Through our fellowship program, we get students who are very entrepreneurship-minded and [are considering] a career a little off the paved [path],” he says.
ROMBA works to connect these individuals with program alumni and professionals who are small business owners or investors. “We try to make sure the students are very well connected to entrepreneurs and those in funding so that they understand what the landscape is and start building those professional contacts while still in school,” explains Kidd.
The organization is also known for its Reaching Out LGBTQ MBA and Business Graduate Conference — often referred to as the ROMBA Conference — which draws nearly 1,500 members, industry leaders, and recruiters every year. The event offers multiple opportunities for future entrepreneurs — both students and alumni — to learn about starting a business, consult with industry experts, and win seed funding. “We build entrepreneurship programming largely around our annual conference … because it is applicable to both students and professionals,” he says. “We want to capture as many people as [we can] and make the programming as accessible as possible.”
In conjunction with the professional association StartOut, which also supports LGBTQ entrepreneurs, ROMBA offers what Kidd refers to as an “advising zone” where conference attendees can meet with successful professionals in the startup field. “We create an area where students and alumni … can learn how the [entrepreneurial] process works and what they need to do to [prepare],” Kidd says. “They get to talk to experienced entrepreneurs and investors to get candid feedback and essentially pressure-test their ideas.”
The conference features several sessions that provide valuable information for those thinking about starting or who are in the early stages of launching their own business. These include lectures and workshops that are typically led by established entrepreneurs and financial backers, who cover topics such as scalability, managing investors, and securing funding, says Kidd.
“There are proven disadvantages that the LGBTQ community has [when it comes to starting a business], particularly with funding, so the extent to which we can get our members talking to investors and to those who know how to [secure] funding is a critical step,” he explains. “We want to create an advantage for LGBTQ entrepreneurs by giving them this access.”
The conference culminates in a startup pitch competition in which four individuals have the opportunity to present their business concepts before a panel of venture capitalists. The winner of the competition receives a $5,000 investment. “The [goal] … is for people to test their ideas, get feedback, and hopefully win a little seed money that will give them the momentum to go out and find initial investors,” Kidd explains.
Founded in 1997, the Women’s Business Enterprise National Council (WBENC) is a network of female entrepreneurs, business leaders, and Fortune 500 employees; its mission is to be the leader in women’s business development. The organization launched its Student Entrepreneur Program (SEP) in 2008 to help young women create and grow innovative, successful enterprises while still in college or graduate school.
According to Andrew Gaeckle, director of strategic planning at WBENC, the organization works with more than 130 colleges and universities to identify “the best and brightest students” and accepts a cohort of up to 25 female undergraduate and graduate entrepreneurs into SEP each year. Candidates must be pursuing a degree in business or a science, technology, engineering, arts, or math (STEAM) discipline, as one goal of the program is to increase the number of women in these fields. In addition, he says, WBENC works to diversify the entrepreneurial and STEAM landscape by ensuring that SEP students come from a variety of backgrounds and institutions, including public, private, and historically black colleges.
The organization gives preference to “applicants who are currently the owner, founder, or controlling shareholder of a company and principally responsible for its operation,” according to the WBENC website. Accepted students include those who have created their own product or are in the early stages of launching a business. “We want to make sure students are going down the entrepreneurial [path], that they have some kind of traction with their business idea or have already launched a [venture],” says Gaeckle.
SEP programming centers around the WBENC National Conference and Business Fair, held every June. While the conference lasts just two days, SEP students spend a full week at the event site to participate in classes and events tailored to young women entrepreneurs. WBENC provides its own curriculum, and a host of business experts lead the classes and trainings.
“Our curriculum is really based [on] identifying both what the entrepreneurial journey is and what it means to start and grow a small business,” says Gaeckle, adding that SEP classes cover topics like funding opportunities and understanding the supply chain.
In addition to these classes, the women are introduced to entrepreneurial ecosystems by visiting local business incubators and suppliers. They are also connected with WBENC mentors and corporate representatives who provide one-on-one advisement and help them prepare for the pitch competition that takes place on the last day of the conference. While the event provides SEP students with a multitude of networking opportunities, Gaeckle says it is the mentorship component that often proves most valuable when it comes to learning how to pitch a business and find investors.
During the WBENC pitch competition, each student is given 90 seconds to present her business plan to a live audience and a panel of WBENC judges. Three women walk away with third-, second-, and first-place prizes of $4,000, $6,000, and $10,000 in seed capital, says Gaeckle. “The money gives students what they need to develop their products, access new markets, bring on a temporary resource, or whatever else their need may be,” he explains.
“SEP is really about helping take these students to the next level,” he adds, “and that happens by engaging them with mentors who can advise them and by giving them … the resources to take them there.”●
Mariah Bohanon is a senior staff writer for INSIGHT Into Diversity.