As the University of Louisville-Clemson football game was played last weekend, dozens of attendees ate, drank and filled the Green Building in NuLu for the culmination of Diversity Pitch Fest.
But this wasn’t just a party. The all-day event, hosted by the Kentucky Chapter of the National Black MBA Association, aimed to build connections and capital for business-owners of color.
Angelique Johnson was one of the attendees. She’s founder of a medical device startup. She makes implantable electronics that treat neural loss and dysfunction. Johnson now has enough funding to bring on five employees.
She said Louisville is a great place for a company like hers.
“Louisville kinda has very affordable facilities but at the same time, they’re very high-tech facilities,” she said. “We have all the equipment we need access to.”
But Johnson said the city also presents some obstacles.
“There’s challenges in finding engineers that are homegrown in Louisville to work for your startup,” Johnson said.
For African-Americans, Johnson said barriers arise even before they think about starting a business. That includes barriers in education. She had the additional challenge of being an African-American woman in engineering.
“But those challenges made me more resilient,” she said. “One thing about doing a startup company is you gotta get used to failure. And the challenges you go through as an African-American prepare you for that resilience, that drive. So it works for your benefit.”
A more tangible obstacle to entrepreneurship for blacks is money. Johnson said often, investors who fund companies invest in people, rather than the product or the company.
“And when they say they invest in the people, a lot of times that relates to the people they know and they’re comfortable with,” she said.
Johnson said if most investors are white males, as a black woman, her odds of getting financed decrease. She also said it may not necessarily have to do with racism.
“I don’t travel in the same circles as them,” she said of many investors.
The city recognizes these challenges as well. Later this month, District 4 councilman David Tandy is organizing the second annual Minority Business Fair with Fourth Street Live.
“I think the biggest obstacle for minority-owned or women-owned businesses is simply access to contacts, access to decision-makers,” Tandy said at a news conference in September announcing the fair.
Demetrius Gray, a contractor who specializes in roofing and large span skylights, plans on sending some of his staff to the city’s Minority Business Fair.
“The reality is though, if you’re going to do something like that, have contracts for people,” Gray said. “Really be serious and be very genuine in your effort to help minority businesses in this community.”
Monique Quarterman was co-organizer of Diversity Pitch Fest. She said while African-Americans have long contributed to the labor force, there’s something distinctive about entrepreneurship.
“Business ownership for the African-American community is really power in the greater community, power when it comes to economic stability,” she said. “There’s something special about everyone in the community having an opportunity to be an employer.”
Besides, there are other reasons to start a business.
As Angelique Johnson, founder of the medical startup, said, “you can be the next Bill Gates. Like Beyonce says.”