Black Innovation Matters event amplifies ideas, inspires action for Black entrepreneurship

The Doherty Center for Creativity, Innovation and Entrepreneurship and the Center for Race, Ethnicity, and Diversity Education co-hosted the event, which featured presentations from the founders of Venture Catalysts, Hella Cocktails Co. and Boundless Blackness.

In celebration of Black innovation and entrepreneurship, the Doherty Center for Creativity, Innovation and Entrepreneurship and the Center for Race, Ethnicity and Diversity Education (CREDE) co-hosted the third annual Black Innovation Matters (BIM).

Event flyer for Black Innovation Matters Event on October 22nd from 7-8:30pmThe event, held virtually this year, included presentations from Monica Wheat, founder and executive director of Venture Catalysts; Jomaree Pinkard, co-founder and CEO of Hella Cocktails Co; and Soniyah Robinson ‘23, founder of Boundless Blackness; as well as a panel discussion featuring North Carolina entrepreneurs and a representative of the The Small Business and Technology Development Center (SBTDC), a statewide business advisory service of The University of North Carolina System.

The event was chaired by Elon students Mikayla Ford ’22 and Kobie Williams ’22, as well as Daisy Magnus-Aryitey, a Durham-based professional and entrepreneurship educator who works for NC Idea.

Other partners of the event included the Center for Access and Success, Elon Odyssey Program, Elon BSU (Black Student Union), Center for Leadership, and NC Idea, a private foundation whose mission is to empower North Carolinians to reach their full entrepreneurial potential.

Ford shared the mission of the event in her opening remarks: “This annual event brings awareness to and celebrates Black innovation, recognizing both students and professionals. Tonight’s conference is rooted in two powerful themes – amplifying ideas and inspiring action – as we hope to encourage future Black entrepreneurs.”

Williams added, “It’s important to celebrate and highlight the leaders, creators and innovators of today, so that you can inspire the new ones for tomorrow.”

Presenters shared their experiences with personal business startups, including the challenges in business and entrepreneurship as a Black innovator, and offered inspirational advice to attendees.

“I am passionate about venture and entrepreneurship as direct paths to personal advancement and economic advancement, especially for underrepresented communities,” Wheat said in her presentation.

Her company, Venture Catalysts, builds inclusive founder entrepreneurial ecosystems. She explained Venture Catalysts’ ecosystem-as-a-service (EAAS), which optimizes connections between ecosystem players and ecosystem partners.

An effective and inclusive ecosystem solves for 90% of the top reasons startups fail, Wheat said. “If you have the right connections, you’re able to get more output and past a lot of those issues.”

Wheat shared the successful story of cultivating entrepreneurship in Detroit and how the city was initially underestimated as being able to deliver an entrepreneurial ecosystem.

“Being underestimated is one of the biggest competitive advantages you can have,” Wheat said. She explained: 1) It creates a hunger for success, 2) There’s no cap on ideas, and 3) You can’t create the extraordinary unless you do something contrarian.

“We’ve been able to pull 40,000 people through our programs in the last three to four years,” Wheat said. Detroit launched the largest Startup Week in 2016 and continued to grow the annual event, leading to it being chosen as the first city to launch a virtual Startup Week globally. It has also hosted Afrotech, the largest conference for African American entrepreneurs in the U.S., and Backstage Accelerator, the largest global accelerator for underrepresented entrepreneurs, as well as partnered with several organizations, 68% of which have diverse founders.

Pinkard shared his journey as an entrepreneur, which included attending the University of Virginia, working for the 9/11 Disaster Relief Fund, joining corporate America, graduating from University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School of Business, working for the National Football League, and starting Hella Cocktail Co, as well as the daily challenges he encountered, such as systematic discrimination, conflicting communications styles, different networks and a lack of access to capital.

He advised students to normalize their narrative and be authentic. “A lot of times Black women and men as leaders are thought of as aggressive or stubborn…instead of visionary, focused, driven,” Pinkard said.

He encouraged attendees to be self-aware, know their value, and normalize their story with positive attributes.

Robinson echoed Pinkard’s call for Black entrepreneurs to tell their stories. “Breaking stereotypes is important, and being unapologetically and wholeheartedly Black and happy with our Blackness is part of the process,” she said.

The conversation around challenges Black entrepreneurs face continued during the panel discussion, with panelists also sharing the rewards of being a Black innovator.

Quinci King, executive director of Audacity Labs, shared he faces challenges with intersectionality and the stigma against those identities in the Black community.

Panelists also listed lack of representation, lack of exposure to successful Black entrepreneurs, lack of resources, and fear of failure as challenges to overcome.

When it comes to benefits, King said he feels rewarded when he succeeds in his work and that being successful and overcoming stigmas can empower others within the same space.

“No matter how small or large our enterprises are, we are always doing something that is meeting a need in the community and that is eventually going to make an imprint on history,” added Katrece Boyd, general business counselor at SBTDC, based at NC State University. “We are culture shapers and when we make an imprint, we make an impact.”

The panel was moderated by event co-chair Magnus-Aryitey. Also serving on the panel were Ryan Ray, chairman & CEO of Triangle Entrepreneurial Leadership; Abi Olukeye, founder/CEO of Smart girls HQ; Jackie Moss, CEO of Snatcher INC. LLC; and Imani Gross ‘21, owner of College Cookies.

“I thoroughly appreciated the diversity of experience, yet unified mission that was clearly illustrated throughout the event,” King said about BIM. “The conversations I witnessed – including some that I was privileged to take part in – were nuanced and complex, providing attendees with a comprehensive view of where the Black entrepreneurial ecosystem is at, and all the work we have yet to do.”

Supporting the event were student committee members Soniyah Robinson ’23, Trinity Swepson ‘24, Trent Dodson ’21, Sarah Gaynor ‘24, Sydni Brown ‘24, Patrick Brundidge ‘22, Quirah Hamilton ‘24, Imani Gross ‘21, and Ciani Foy ‘22.

“Being a part of a space that fostered such inspiration, truth and knowledge was amazing,” said Robinson, a journalism major. “It was a great experience to hear the wisdom and advice of entrepreneurs and innovators that look like me and are working in fields that I would like to be in one day.”