DURHAM – In his commencement address at Northwestern University, Illinois Governor JB Pritzker started by quoting the beloved ‘The Office’ character Dwight Schrute. It provided the opening humor that has become expected in a commencement address and set him up for a partisan quip. I found his main points about empathy and kindness particularly salient.

Thom Ruhe (NC IDEA photo)

The Governor observed that too many people today are “using cruelty as an adroit cudgel to gain power” and that empathy and kindness are considered weaknesses. Unfortunately, my observations would substantiate this assertion.

The work of economically empowering people through entrepreneurship is usually non-partisan. Most reasonable people agree that helping individuals become self-sufficient by pursuing the American Dream of entrepreneurship is good. Recently, however, we’ve seen an attack on economic empowerment initiatives (overwhelmingly supported by data) addressing decades-long under-investment in socially and economically disadvantaged individuals. Specifically, I am referring to the Fearless Fund lawsuit.

The lawsuit attempts to thwart efforts to address disparities in funding for BIPOC populations. To be clear, there is NO dispute of the data illustrating the obscene funding gaps. Per Harvard Business Review, citing research from other credible sources like McKinsey & Company and Boston Consulting Group, “Research repeatedly shows that companies with diversity in senior leadership significantly outperform their all-white, all-male counterparts. Diverse leadership generates better financial performancestronger innovation, and higher levels of startup success.” For experienced practitioners in economic development, we’ve known for decades that interventions targeted at leveling the playing field are not just the right thing to do but the smart thing to do.

I am optimistic to see the outpouring of public support for the Fearless Fund. I wonder if this indefensible ploy will have consequential blowback for those trying to take our economy back to a time of great inequality. For some, such efforts evoke fear that helping marginalized groups comes at some perceived but unidentifiable cost to them. Overcoming such fear requires courage, which is currently in short supply.

We will continue to embody our values in the work of programs like the NC Black Entrepreneurship Council. Speaking of which, our friends at GrepBeat just published an excellent article summarizing those efforts.

Rest assured, we will stay the course and have much more to say about this at our Fall Summit in November. Until then, let me close by quoting Governor Pritzker once more when he said, “The kindest person in the room is often the smartest.”