Entrepreneurship is synonymous with privilege. The universities in the U.S. with the largest endowments, mostly predominantly white institutions, are by and large the same schools that produce the largest numbers of funded founders.
These schools’ graduates and alumni capitalize on institutional networks during their matriculation, and many leave college well-prepared to tackle the entrepreneurship journey, enabled by interconnected, well-resourced funders that welcome them with open arms and pockets.
But who exactly are we talking about when we say “entrepreneurs”? Merriam-Webster’s defines an entrepreneur as “One who organizes, manages, and assumes the risks of a business or enterprise.”
While that definition is indeed broad, it does not often align with society’s perception of entrepreneurs and the actions associated with them. The perception of an entrepreneur is of a white male, usually an alum of a well-known and well-funded university. All too often, those perceptions are true.
To truly diversify entrepreneurship, we must dismantle the perception of an entrepreneur as young, white and male.
In many cases, the alumni of prestigious universities go on to launch startups and other entrepreneurial ventures, fitting the profile of a demographic that excels in securing funding and consistently receives access to capital. Even with Black founders’ overall gains in access to capital in recent months, the amount of venture capital going to Black founders remains relatively small.
Similarly, an increase in pipeline programs for Black students at the national and local levels for mentorship and professional growth development has also led to proportionately more success in grasping long-term leadership opportunities compared to their white male counterparts. But the success of pipeline programs, too, has not translated into equitable funding.
This is where Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) have an opportunity. Following a sharp increase in enrollment over the past year, HBCUs are well-positioned to take the lead in training and championing the next generation of entrepreneurs by committing to and creating programs that emphasize business experience, creativity, innovation and the building of strong networks.
A deeper look at data highlighting entrepreneurial venture funding demonstrates a need for programs beyond pipeline and capacity building. While slowly increasing, access to capital is still abysmal for Black founders compared to their white male counterparts, even more so for women, especially for Black and Latina women. According to ProjectDiane, a biennial report from digitalundivided.com, Black and Latina women combined received just 0.64 percent of total venture capital investment between 2018 and 2019, despite becoming founders at record rates.
To truly diversify entrepreneurship, we must dismantle the perception of an entrepreneur as young, white and male and foster a more inclusive view so everyone can visualize themselves within the entrepreneurial ecosystem.
We can accomplish this by ensuring that entrepreneurship and innovation programs are a part of the core academic curriculum and student experience at HBCUs — and by equipping HBCU students with the tools, resources and networks to navigate a funding pipeline with deep discrepancies in equity.
HBCUs provide culturally relevant educational environments and support the development of individual and cultural identities. As demonstrated by rising HBCU enrollment, Black and Latino/a students are seeking institutions where they feel safe and supported; with security, protection and the space to build community.
Enabling HBCU students to explore their identities and ambitions in safe spaces while visualizing entrepreneurship as a viable career opportunity will help close the diversity and equity gaps in entrepreneurship.
The good news is that several HBCU institutions and communities are already building programs and resources to address this need. Programs like the Spelpreneur incubator and the recently launched Howard University Center for Women, Gender and Global Leadership are a start.
Studies have shown that Black and Latino/a entrepreneurs come from richly diverse backgrounds and approach entrepreneurship from a community-focused perspective. HBCU partnerships with community-based programs have the potential to reach overlooked and underfunded founders.
For example, programs like Entrepreneur Development Network DC, where local founders and entrepreneurs gain experience and mentorship in scaling their small businesses, have the potential to reach entrepreneurs in a way that empowers them to impact their communities.
We must expand such programs’ reach. Preparing HBCU students to be leaders in their communities and their respective fields while also teaching them how to innovate and showcase their achievements through entrepreneurship is essential for national economic expansion. Funding identical or similar programs should be a priority for state and local governments and stakeholders looking to invest in supporting and growing small businesses.
By prioritizing entrepreneurship curriculum development and pedagogy, HBCUs will help students be better prepared to succeed. Further, these historic institutions will be able to lead the conversation in redefining what it means to be an entrepreneur, not just in the present but also moving forward into the future.
Qyana M. Stewart is the CEO and principal consultant of GlobalForce Tech Consulting, LLC, a technology consulting and software development company, and president of GlobalForce For Girls, Inc., a 501(c)(3) education technology nonprofit. She is also a Ph.D. student in the Higher Education Leadership and Policy Studies program at Howard University.
This piece about HBCUs and entrepreneurship was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for Hechinger’s newsletter.