Opportunities Made By A Black Woman: Founder Helps Launch Ideas
Shelly Bell acknowledges she is a super cool person.
But, also, “I am a nerd,” says the founder of Black Girl Ventures, which recently received $450,000 in funding over two years from the Ewing Marion Kaufmann Foundation.
Bell’s company that she founded in Washington, D.C. in 2016 “is dedicated to offering comprehensive education and advisory services that outline a road map for the growth and success of minority and/or veteran women entrepreneurs. Our vision is to create a society where Black and Brown women founders have equitable access to social and financial capital to grow their businesses,” according to the website.
Offering technical assistance, access to capital, mentoring, workshops and a pitch competition in many cities, Bell says Black Girl Ventures pitch competition is patterned after the “Rent Party” concept, where people in Harlem in the early 1920’s would get together, charge an admission fee, invite musicians to play and raise the money to pay the rent with basement parties.
“What I have found is that you give a woman a push, a chance, some capital, the amount of growth she gets from that is powerful,” Bell says. “And the outpouring from women we serve is amazing.”
Bell, who grew up in Durham, N.C., studied computer science in college and took her first job teaching computer science in a middle school in Charlotte, N.C., where she taught from 2003 to 2005.
From there, Bell worked at the U.S. Patent & Trademark Office, which she said she didn’t like at all. “They were calling us the denial office,” Bell says, as she spent all day reading papers and “trying to decide if people have a nice idea.”
Though the work at the PTO office was tedious, it was the seedling of the idea for her funding project of Black Girl Ventures, that helps, rather than denies, the great ideas of women of color launching their own ventures. And she ultimately got her own trademark for “Made By A Black Woman.”
After returning to school to get a teaching certificate, Bell taught computer science for four years until 2011 at T.C. Williams High School in Virginia, the school made famous by the film ” Remember The Titans.”
“I loved it so much,” Bell says, “teaching what I went to school for and teaching children how to think. It was less about how computers, and more about how do you think about things to make something work.”
Realizing that she had also loved writing poetry since she was 8 years old, Bell decided to launch an idea for an arts community, creating Slam Alexandria and writing communities with monthly gatherings. She also realized she was good at being entrepreneurial and thinking about the cause, but not at creating the revenue she needed, so she went to work for a workforce development agency.
That job was not ideal, and with her third child on the way, Bell decided to take time off before starting Black Girl Ventures in 2016. In the meantime she set up a teepee in her living room for rental— a concept that was the same as Airbnb.
Bell was great at bringing people together with new ideas, so in these informal arts communities, they pooled their money and voted on funding the chosen idea by “putting a marble in a coffee mug,” Bell says.
Black Girl Ventures now sells its own merchandise and coffee mugs, including one that says, “Resist the urge to be average.”
After making a splash at SXSW in 2018 with Black Girl Ventures, and being featured in Essence magazine, Bell’s Black Girl Ventures has to date funded 32 women of color with an average of $2,000-$3,000 in funding. And one rule for the pitch competition is the pitch itself must be from a woman of color.
Winning funding from the Kaufmann Foundation this year as one of 19 organizations chosen out of 750 applications from 42 states and two territories, Black Girl Ventures will be expanding programming to create access to capital for women in five key markets of Houston, Birmingham, Miami, Philadelphia and Durham.
“Shelly is thoughtful, strategic and understands that women in this program with lived experience have better outcomes,” says Natalie Self, program officer in Entrepreneurship at the Kauffman Foundation.
According to Forbes, “In 2017, Bell was named Entrepreneur of the Year by Technically DC as well as one of the Top 40 New Power Women in Tech by DCA Live. She’s also been selected as DC’s Google Digital Coach, an initiative by Google in which community leaders advise business owners who are underrepresented online.”
The funding of Black women’s ventures by Black Girl Ventures is deliberate. Only 10% of venture-backed companies have a female founder; only 1% had an African American founder. African American women are starting businesses at six times the national average, but are not seeing the same receipts as other founders, according to research.
Women of color are in need of support in the three major areas of access to capital, access to influential networks and the ability to hire employees. Black Girl Ventures helps with all of those.
“We have toolkits, trainings and a chapter model,” says Bell, whose company organizes pitch competions in several cities including Washington, D.C, Baltimore, Austin, Chicago, Atlanta, Detroit, Philadelphia and New York.
The mother of three says she envisions expanding Black Girl Ventures into 10 and perhaps 15 other markets in the future.
“In my vision I see someone’s daughter saying, ‘I saw you change my mom’s life and now mine is changed.’ We can read that in fancy quotes,” Bell says, “but to see it in action keeps me inspired. It makes me feel like I can change the world.”