DURHAM – As the nation celebrates National Black Business Month in August, NC IDEA, a private foundation committed to supporting entrepreneurial ambition and economic empowerment in North Carolina, is also marking the three-year anniversary of its North Carolina Black Entrepreneurship Council (NC BEC), which has awarded more than $2 million in grants since the Council’s formation in August 2020.
“We created the North Carolina Black Entrepreneurship Council at the height of the Black Lives Matter movement to change how philanthropy tackles the systemic economic disparities and entrepreneurial ownership gap in the Black community,” said Thom Ruhe, president and CEO of NC IDEA. “To do this, we placed our trust and confidence in a group led by members of the community it serves.”
Through the Council, NC IDEA empowered a select group of entrepreneurs, university dignitaries, and community leaders, who formed around the collective vision to build a more equitable future by creating grant programs to build wealth in the Black community. The Council’s game-changing model is leading a paradigm shift in philanthropy by addressing the systemic inequities of Black America through the power of entrepreneurship.
“Driven by the unmet $50 billion promise made three years ago by corporate America to address the inequities plaguing our nation, the formation of the NC BEC includes building the capacity of Black leaders, enabling them to have a stronger voice in support of Black entrepreneurship as an equitable economic development strategy,” Ruhe added.
To date, the Council has awarded over $2 million in grants within North Carolina directly to Black entrepreneurs, entrepreneurial support organizations, and Historically Black Colleges and Universities. The Council’s funding is paying early dividends:
1) the seven entrepreneur grant recipients have generated a total of 66 jobs and successfully raised close to $9 million in funds
2) the 23 funded entrepreneurial support organizations have provided assistance and capacity-building to more than 285 companies and hosted more than 1,500 attendees for outreach and training events
3) the five HBCU grant recipients will each deploy $150,000 to broaden access to entrepreneurial-focused curriculum and resources for their student populations and surrounding communities.
Founded in 2005, NC IDEA has a proven track record of providing entrepreneur-focused grants and programs for historically underserved founders. Over the last seven years alone, the organization has transformed from distributing 90 percent of its grants to startups led by urban white males to now awarding over 70 percent of grants to startups led by founders who are female, racial minorities, or based in a rural or economically distressed community.
“The NC BEC puts their money where their mouth is time and time again,” said Bernard Worthy, founder and CEO of LoanWell and NC BEC grant recipient. “It’s a nod to ‘we hear you, and we understand, and we are going to do something about it.’”
LoanWell, headquartered in Durham, North Carolina, and founded by Worthy and his co-founder Justin Straight, helps Community Development Financial Institutions (CDFIs) deploy more capital more efficiently through its automated loan origination platform and lending marketplace (like LendingTree for CDFIs) with $350 million deployed to U.S. small businesses in the last two years. LoanWell has raised over $4 million from investors and has 18 employees.
“Amidst a nationwide movement rallying around the Black community in response to the tragic homicide of George Floyd and systemic economic inequity, the formation of the North Carolina Black Entrepreneurship Council emerged through an authentic, community-driven approach,” said Dr. Jerry Edmonds III, vice president of Vance-Granville Community College, NC BEC founding member, and NC IDEA board chairman. “NC IDEA’s role as a private foundation providing support to the NC BEC sets both apart in their ability to enact meaningful change in a system that has not always provided Black entrepreneurs with the resources necessary for success.”
According to an analysis by The Washington Post, 90 percent of the commitments made by corporate America three years ago were loans or investments from which corporations could profit. In contrast, NC IDEA’s trust-based philanthropy model aims to rebalance power and decision-making, prioritizing those who are systemically overlooked and undervalued.
“As North Carolina’s lead economic development official, I have made advancing equity and inclusion a top priority for our state, and supporting entrepreneurship is a critical part of our strategy,” said North Carolina Commerce Secretary Machelle Baker Sanders. “The NC Black Entrepreneurship Council is reversing a long history of disinvestment, and it serves as a national exemplar inspiring others to follow suit.”
According to the National Bureau of Economic Research, the average level of startup capital for Black entrepreneurs is about $35,000, whereas their white counterparts report an average of about $107,000 of startup capital. The Council’s unique three-part funding approach shows the early impact and promise of authentic investment into Black entrepreneurship. Providing grants directly to entrepreneurs levels the playing field for Black-led startups and builds generational wealth for entrepreneurs who have felt the burden of disinvestment along their journey. Funding HBCUs and Black-serving entrepreneurial support organizations is seeding the next generation and expanding a pipeline of talent in North Carolina.
“Because there are not many venture-backed women of color, there are not many visible and successful exits either. This adds a layer of risk to the process that will require investors to meet us halfway by taking the time to build meaningful founder relationships,” said Abi Olukeye, founder and CEO of Smart Girls HQ and NC BEC grant recipient. “The NC BEC, through NC IDEA, built a pipeline of programs that allows both organizations to really get to know our business. Therefore, once we showed the proof points we needed at each stage of growth, they were ready to support us to the next level.”
Based in Charlotte, North Carolina, Smart Girls HQ is building a digital platform that will provide resources and activities for young girls in STEM education. The company, now with five employees, has received over $465,000 in funding to date from organizations like the National Science Foundation and the U.S. Department of Education.