Some Sage advice - funding is the only way to get more Black women in tech
- The BOSS Network founder Cameka Smith explains why networking and mentorship aren’t enough.
I'm out of the inspiration game. I'm really in the money game now.
So says Dr Cameka Smith about her shift in focus for The BOSS Network, the organization she founded in 2009.
Smith’s original intention was to establish a community of professional and entrepreneurial black women, offering events, workshops and coaching to help this underrepresented group succeed in the business world. Smith identified a gap in the market for such an organization after leaving her previous career in education. After a decade working for Chicago Public Schools, Smith was one of the thousands of teachers and staff who lost their job when the recession hit in the late 2000s.
Having decided to go into business for herself full-time, Smith spent a lot of time talking to different entrepreneurs from minority communities:
Through all those conversations I was having with different people, it struck a chord with me: I'm an event planner, these are really great conversations. Maybe I should just create a series of events for women of color to talk about career life for us in business, starting a business, different challenges, how do we become successful.
Smith decided to launch an online forum and event series called BOSS - Bringing Out Successful Sisters, which now reaches over 200,000 women globally.
However, the last four years have seen Smith shift expand her focus from conversations and coaching to funding as she came to the realization that there is little point inspiring a whole bunch of women to start businesses, if those businesses were then failing due to a lack of capital to keep going:
A lot of the women I was working with were saying, we're workshopped out, we're coached out, if we don't have the funding to actually implement these resources and these learnings, we're just holding onto all this information.
This view is borne out by the data. Black women received a pitiful 0.34% of VC funding in 2021, according to Crunchbase, and there are only around 40 women of color, who have raised $1m+ for their ventures. This is despite the fact that more Black women start businesses than anyone else across the US:
I just thought that was insane, I’ve got to find a way to create funding opportunities for these women.
This was the catalyst for Smith establishing the BOSS Impact Fund earlier this year. In the wake of the Covid pandemic and its detrimental impact on so many small businesses, alongside the renewed focus on racial injustice, Smith took the opportunity to seek more support for the community she has been nurturing and growing for the past 14 years:
I wanted to start a program where we can actually give these women a leg up and just give them some seed money for their businesses, but also give them some mentorship and training.
It was important for me as a Black woman to invest in other Black women, because people who don't look like us, they don't understand our plight.
Smith’s goal wasn’t to create an actual investment fund where her organization would act as part of these women-owned ventures; it was about giving them enough money to build a successful business, something she had benefited from when she started the BOSS Network. Smith was invited to apply for a pitch competition and won a $10,000 grant, enough to update her website, create a marketing platform and hire a publicist:
That $10,000 gave me this motivation - if somebody's invested in my business, I must have something great here. It gave me this extra push.
I realized as a community leader that people needed to see me on the front lines, talking about this brand and what we're doing for Black women.
In partnership with the BOSS Impact Fund, Smith has also launched the BOSS Business University, offering a one-year scholarship focused on mentorship and teaching women how to be successful entrepreneurs in addition to the cash injection.
The crucial element of the BOSS Impact Fund has been finding advocates and partners who would start funnelling capital to Black women-owned businesses. Smith noted that Covid and the death of George Floyd resulted in many brands releasing statements about making investments into the Black community:
I felt I have to strike while the iron's hot. I had been knocking on these people’s doors about this fund, I had been asking for support for my business owners for years, but people weren't really interested. It was like, we can do an event together, we can do a tour together, but not really wanting to invest.
As the conversation grew around racial injustice, Smith jumped on the opportunity to launch the BOSS Impact Fund and approach partners she had already been working with to seek investment.
This has resulted in mentorship and coaching from JP Morgan Chase and a grant for a program with PepsiCo. But one of the most important partnerships so far is the organization’s relationship with Sage, which Smith says goes beyond just marketing and providing resources.
The accounting software firm is investing $1.5m over three years to support the BOSS Impact Fund. Grants have been awarded to 35 women so far, who each receive $10,000 and a 12-month program of entrepreneurial mentorship and education:
This is where Sage has been so great. They're providing space for these women to utilize their services at no cost for a year, they're providing mentorship from their leaders, they're committed, they're invested. That's the type of partnerships I want. I want partners that are saying we're going to give you our time, our money and our support. There are a lot of brands that won't do that.
As well as the $10,000 start-up grant, Smith is pitching a $25,000 grant to brands to help Black women-owned businesses scale.
The reality is, $10,000 is really going to get them started and hopefully they'll be able to create a marketing strategy and really get to their customers. But even with that, these women are still being left out when it comes to getting access to loans or VC investments that most small businesses have access to. And if we still don't have access to that, how do you continue to scale?