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How the Institute for Entrepreneurial Leadership is Empowering Women of Color

Empowering Women of Color

Jill Johnson is the CEO and co-founder of the Institute for Entrepreneurial Leadership (IFEL). The IFEL is a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization that supports economic development through entrepreneurship. She launched the organization in 2002, back in an era when focusing on the relationship between wealth-building and entrepreneurship was a concept ahead of its time. Since then, the light being shone on this issue is much brighter through efforts like hers, those of IFEL and those of other women of color.

Today, startups founded by black women represent the highest category of growth among startups. Silicon Valley recently took notice of black women in tech with the addition of the first women of color to the Unicorn Club. Julia Collins of Zume Pizza, a robotic supply chain solution, raised $423 million and achieved a peak company valuation of $2.1 billion.

On February 13, 2020, IFEL hosted its second annual Women of Color Connecting Summit & Benefit Celebration with the purpose of convening thought leaders and change agents who are ready to take on the challenge for creating a more inclusive entrepreneurial ecosystem. Grit Daily caught up with Johnson to learn more about IFEL and what the future looks like for women of color entrepreneurs.

Grit Daily: Thanks for taking some time with us today, Jill. You recognized the need and launched IFEL before the industry recognized that there even was a need to support women of color. Tell us how you got started on the path to this work you are doing.

Jill Johnson: It all began with my parents. They had a newspaper publishing business in Plainfield, NJ which they relocated to Newark. It was called City News. I grew up doing various jobs in their business right up until the time that I went to college. Running your own business was the only life that I knew.

Jill Johnson, CEO and co-founder of IFEL

GD: How did you know that this is what you wanted to do?

JJ: I didn’t! I spoke about this on a panel discussion hosted by Berkeley College. Doing what I do now, more-or-less evolved out of recognizing a need for what has to be done. There were numerous parallels with how and why my parents started their business. But I also observed numerous contrasts between how my parents started and operated their business and the white men who I observed creating tremendous wealth from their respective businesses who were clients during my time as a financial analyst at Goldman Sachs. The two perspectives were entirely different. One perspective was grounded in community benefit, creating jobs and establishing a legacy, and the other was rooted in creating and transferring wealth. The latter was not part of the conversation in brown and black households; women of color weren’t part of the consideration set for entrepreneurism.

GD: Unconscious bias is finally surfacing as a major theme in business and investment. Awareness is where it starts, but is that enough?

JJ: It goes a little deeper than an unconscious basis. We are creatures of habit. People are comfortable with people who are like them, have similar interests, backgrounds, and so on. The real challenge is that so many of us stay siloed within our own groups and communities to the point where we may not even realize that we’re siloed. We don’t get to know each other during our formative years so the opportunity to find out if there are shared goals or interests that transcend race, gender, religion, class, etc. is missed. Your elementary friend pool, the colleges you attend, and your early life experiences tend to define your level of access and privilege later in life. And yes, awareness is a good start but there is a long way to go until women of color have equal opportunity.

GD: What prompted you to begin IFEL?

JJ: Originally, my father and I set out to raise a fund. Now it’s come full circle: many people are raising funds for marginalized groups within the entrepreneurial ecosystem. Twenty years ago, we kept hearing “there is capital available” and “we are looking for the good deals.” So we didn’t get a lot of support for creating a fund and we were encouraged to start a non-profit to work with entrepreneurs to help them become fundable, building a pipeline for capital providers.

GD: What is the greatest achievement of IFEL?

JJ: During the first 16 years (we’re approaching 18 years now), there were many lessons learned. To figure out what works versus what doesn’t take work along with trial and error. We’ve touched thousands of entrepreneurs in our history. In some cases, we’ve helped entrepreneurs generate six-figure incomes because of the work we did. In other cases, success is that entrepreneurs who were ready to throw in the towel are still in business. And a portion of our work focused on helping more community-based entrepreneurs get started. These success stories make us proud, but I have come to the understanding that all of that work was simply perpetuating the status quo. That work doesn’t move the needle to address the systemic issues that make real entrepreneurial success for black and brown communities nearly impossible. Our greatest achievement has come recently in launching our effort to drive diversity and inclusion within the angel investing sector as a foundation for addressing access to capital barriers for women of color entrepreneurs.

GD: Every entrepreneur that I’ve spoken to has pivoted at least once, if not more. Have you pivoted and, if so, what did you change?

JJ: About two years ago, we decided to focus our efforts on eliminating the systemic barriers that keep entrepreneurs in communities of color from having access to the knowledge, networks and capital that are required for entrepreneurial success. Our efforts are now centered on inclusion within the entrepreneurial ecosystem and the people, institutions and systems that drive it. Our work is less about improving the skills of the entrepreneurs and more about engaging change agents who will use their platform to create an ecosystem in which entrepreneurs of color are able to prosper. Our goal is that we are not having the same conversations about access to capital and other resources 20 years from now.

GD: Amen to that! Has it been challenging for IFEL to secure contributions to support your work?

JJ: Yes! We’ve had difficulty even making our case for donations. Some groups simply aren’t even open to learning about wealth creation. Other groups are willing to contribute but they have a misguided perception equating black and brown with down and out. As such, they regard supporting such communities as “charity.” The work that we do is anything but charity. IFEL is creating a new paradigm for inclusive entrepreneurial ecosystems.

GD: You’ve clearly encountered many challenges, but is there one that stands out above all the others?

JJ: Often, the people that have the resources to support this work don’t understand what is required to be a successful entrepreneur. They’re focused on how many jobs were created, how many business plans were written and other, similar metrics impact metrics. But, that’s not the way small business works. Large corporations often get a stock price boost when they have layoffs in the name of creating efficiencies. So, why is it that micro-businesses are expected to go through a 10-week training program and then immediately become an engine for job creation. Research shows many businesses owned by black women are not generating enough revenue to even create an income for the owner. We have a lot of business starts but not enough success stories. Creating success stories is not just about training for entrepreneurs. Training is easy. It’s the part that comes after the training that is much more difficult and requires a lot of hands-on work. Our biggest challenge has been in getting philanthropists to revisit how they think about impact, reframe the conversation to focus on systemic barriers, and commit to long term funding to support long term solutions.

GD: Tell us about IFEL and the positive impact that it is having.

JJ: The work that we’re doing today has the potential to be highly impactful. Women of Color Connecting only launched a little over a year ago but we’re starting to see some of the relationships develop which is the premise behind the effort. It’s a very different situation when there is someone that you know, like and respect: you’re quite happy to help them do better. And it doesn’t feel like charity. We bring people together who would not otherwise be in the same room offering the possibility of creating authentic, genuine connections. To be an Agent of Change, you can’t be the voice of people that don’t look like you; it’s about relationships to break down unconscious bias and overcome whatever stereotypes are there and to do so through conversations. Each person must be held accountable to do something different towards positive change. Individual responsibility leads to collective action which can change systemic patterns.

GD: 2002 was a long time ago, what are the biggest changes that you’ve seen?

JJ: While I believe that the systemic barriers that were in place then continue to persist and in some cases have become worse, today there is much more attention being drawn to the unique barriers that women of color entrepreneurs face. In other words, more people are talking about the need for business as usual to change. More people are focusing on issues related to diversity, inclusion, and equity. So that’s actually a good thing.  

GD: How is IFEL funded?

JJ: We are funded through grants from corporate partners and foundations as well as individual contributions. We have many amazing people who in addition to donating money, donate their time to support the work that we do and the entrepreneurs that we serve. Volunteer hours absorb a huge component of the cost of our program. 

GD: Tell us about the importance of selecting teammates that are aligned with your mission and vision.

JJ: Finding other organizations, corporations, and individuals who truly care about inclusion is the first step. But we are especially looking for collaborators who are willing to act upon the belief that we all will be better off when we have a society that makes it possible for those who are willing to work to have a real opportunity to win. It is not laziness or ineptitude, aptitude or lack of knowledge that hold people back. There are real barriers created by systems that prevent the creation of wealth for specific groups of people. We are looking for partners who understand that and who will work with us as change agents.

GD: Since this is an article dedicated to entrepreneurial insights, perhaps you could share your advice. What would you tell other entrepreneurs?

JJ: It takes a lot of work! And building relationships is at the foundation of everything that you will do. There will be people who have less than you and who may not be as smart as you who will be more successful than you. It’s rarely about what you know. Success is often determined by your access to resources…capital, knowledge, networks, etc. I would also tell them to plan on everything taking longer and costing more than you think it will. So plan accordingly. And, never stop knocking on doors. You need to find people who believe in you and are willing to help you. These are the people that you need to advocate for you and be your champions even when you are not in the room.