When Shelly Bell decided to launch her T-shirt line and screen-printing shop in Virginia, her journey as an entrepreneur was a lonely one.
“I spent a lot of time learning lessons,” said Bell, who had to figure out the business world on her own as a Black woman whose initial seed money came from her mother’s retirement account.
Struck by how difficult it is for women of color to find venture capital and a network of support for their new businesses, Bell founded Black Girl Ventures. The nonprofit holds competitions across the country where entrepreneurs make a business pitch and online supporters vote with their donations to choose the winner.
“It’s like Kickstarter meets ‘Shark Tank,’” Bell said.
Eight Houston-area business owners entered the competition Saturday. Each contestant appeared in a live, Zoom-style video and made rapid-fire pitches to a panel of three judges while potential donors watched online.
“Your company is your baby,” said Valarie Jefferson, one of the judges overseeing the competition. “Speak with enthusiasm, eye contact and know your product.”
ShantaQuilette Carter Williams pitched her toxin-free personal care brand, Girl B Natural. Brieanna Lightfoot Smith pitched her online learning and networking platform, Activate.
Derreka Shelton pitched a business that caters to students and alumni of historically Black colleges and universities. Shelton’s company, Exclusively HBCU, sends boxes of school-themed merchandise every month to customers, and every box is tailored to the subscriber.
“Every item inside that box is literally catered to you,” Shelton said. “When you open that box on the inside, you’re coming home, cousin.”
“I like it,” Jefferson said.
Donors have one week to decide which companies deserve their contribution. In addition to the money all the contestants win through crowdfunding, the top three winners receive up to 10,000, along with $3,000 in Google Cloud business services and training and mentoring provided by Black Girl Ventures.
Bell said the country is in a place where more people are understanding the need for such a contest. The death of former Houston resident George Floyd sparked a nationwide reckoning with racism. Bell said discrimination has seeped into facets of life that go far beyond policing.
It wasn’t that long ago that minorities were banned from buying property in certain neighborhoods or opening accounts at certain banks, depriving generations of families the opportunity to build wealth. The net worth of a typical white family in America is nearly 10 times greater than that of a Black family, according to a February 2020 report by the Brookings Institution.
“We’re talking about institutions in this country that are hundreds of years old,” Bell said. “And the Black community has literally only had about 60 years to create business uninterrupted. To actually have a fair shot.”
Bell said she’s hopeful now that more people are talking about the opportunities that were lost — and looking for ways to create new ones.