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Leveling the Playing Field


Entrepreneurship is hard. Minority entrepreneurship is harder. The 9th annual Regional Affinity Incubation Network (RAIN) Conference tackled the quest to build a more diverse and inclusive entrepreneurial community.

“From startups, to growing companies and industry leaders, there is an opportunity for all of us to build access and inclusion into the foundations of our region’s startup community infrastructure,” said University City Science Center President and CEO Stephen S. Tang as he opened the conference in Quorum, the Science Center’s clubhouse for entrepreneurs. “Let’s seize that opportunity and help Greater Philadelphia and its citizens compete even more effectively on a national and global scale.”

RAIN convenes the region’s innovation and entrepreneurship community, and explores ways to make the startup community more vibrant, connected and accessible. The Science Center hosts the event each July.

A highlight of this year’s incarnation was a lively panel discussion on “Leveling the Playing Field” featuring Dan Rhoton, executive director of Hopeworks ‘N Camden; Gabrielle Wanamaker, vice president of Business Programs at The Enterprise Center in West Philadelphia; Tariq Hook of Zipcode Wilmington; and Alessandra Brown of the Roxbury Innovation Center in Massachusetts. The session was moderated by Lori Reiner of EisnerAmper, the conference’s presenting sponsor.

rain conference science center
Left to Right: Gabrielle Wanamaker, Alessandra Brown, Dan Rhoton and Tariq Hook

We caught up with Rhoton and Wanamaker to dive deeper into what it takes to foster a diverse, dynamic business environment.

Keystone Edge: Can you elaborate on the theme of the conference? How big of an issue is “leveling the playing field” to promote inclusion among entrepreneurs and startups?

Gabrielle Wanamaker: Small businesses play a very important role in the local and national economy — they account for more than half of all jobs and sales in the U.S. Slightly less than half of businesses in Philadelphia are minority owned. However, revenues for many minority businesses are proportionally lower. For instance, average sales for an African-American business in Philadelphia is $62,000. There certainly are minority-owned business that have millions in sales, but it is a small percentage.

Nationally, African Americans, Asians and Latinos have shared buying power of approximately $3.4 trillion, which is larger than the GDP of many countries. In the African-American community, a dollar turns one time, meaning that a dollar is spent once in the black community before it leaves and is spent elsewhere. Often those dollars go to make purchases that support the revenue growth of larger businesses. When those organizations look for suppliers, many overlook minority businesses to supply goods and services. Others may want to buy locally from diverse suppliers, but are not sure where to look for them.

The market is there and the need is there. Hopeworks has found that employers are quite willing to employ young people, if we prepare those young people for work.Dan Rhoton, Hopeworks 'N Camden

Dan Rhoton: Leveling the playing field is no longer an option. Not only are there not enough “traditional” candidates to meet the demand, but there are larger issues. The youth Hopeworks works with – often struggling with issues of trauma, poverty and adversity – have the potential to either dramatically increase society’s bottom line with their expertise and knowledge, or cost our society a tremendous amount of money through social services, incarceration and other costs. 

Can you tell me more about the specifics you observe in Philadelphia and Camden? What are the available resources/opportunities/challenges in each of those cities?

Gabrielle Wanamaker at the RAIN Conference

GW: In a study of the best places for black-owned business in the U.S., Philadelphia and Camden combined ranked 56th. Many of our businesses are sole proprietorships. The Enterprise Center is working to help businesses create solid infrastructures that are prepared for growth. We work hard to help create new opportunities for high-potential minority-owned business. Philadelphia has several organizations that support small businesses. The landscape for entrepreneurs in Camden is changing with the addition of Waterfront Labs [an innovation hub and community center].

Getting capital is a challenge for minority-owned businesses. Finanta [a Philadelphia nonprofit lending institution] and The Enterprise Center are focused on [that]. We find that new ventures require “patient” capital to grow and few of those patient dollars go to women and minorities. We now have the ability to provide patient capital in the form of equity to a select number of businesses. A local venture capital group reached out and shared that they are interested in broadening their portfolio to include more women and people of color. That was a pleasant surprise.

Recently, we helped a women/minority-owned business land a contract to supply several universities with promotional items. That contract will nearly double her revenues to $500,000 this year; The Enterprise Center’s Capital Corporation lent her $100,000 to provide the capital she needed to fulfill the new contract.

The Enterprise Center is working to help businesses create solid infrastructures that are prepared for growth. We work hard to help create new opportunities for high-potential minority-owned business.Gabrielle Wanamaker, The Enterprise Center

DR: The market is there and the need is there. Hopeworks has found that employers are quite willing to employ young people, if we prepare those young people for work.  Our youth need the technical skills, but that is the least important part of what we do. The truly important part of what we do is the trauma-informed emotional and social skill-building that allows our youth to not just survive, but thrive in any environment.

What do economic development officials, incubators, educators, investors, etc. need to do to insure a more inclusive entrepreneurial ecosystem?

GW: It helps to step out of your bubble to see what others are doing and to be intentional about being inclusive in your exploration. In San Francisco and Cincinnati, large organizations provide prime space to Minority Business Enterprises (MBE) to get their goods out to a larger audience. We have a local developer who is providing retail space to an MBE in his latest new apartment [building] to support the entrepreneur and the local community.

DR: The best way to create diversity is to get rid of unpaid internships. The moment you set up an unpaid opportunity, you immediately exclude most of the population that has responsibilities, kids or other obligations. If you truly want diversity in tech, pay your interns.

What do you think the coming years will bring?

GW: I am seeing more interest from major organizations in the Philadelphia region who want to buy local and make an investment in the entrepreneurial ecosystem. They are broadening their scope to include diverse entrepreneurs as their suppliers.

DR: With new technology, innovation and transformation are no longer reserved to those with capital. This is an exciting change for many underserved communities to create technologies around their needs.

ELISE VIDER is news editor of Keystone Edge.

WRITER IN RESIDENCE is a partnership between the University City Science Center, Keystone Edge and Flying Kite Media that embeds a reporter on-site at Quorum, the Science Center’s clubhouse for entrepreneurs at 3711 Market Street. The resulting coverage will provide an inside look at the most intriguing companies, discoveries and technological innovations coming out of this essential Philadelphia institution.

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Entrepreneurship, Features, Philadelphia, Philadelphia Metro, Science & Tech