Black and Latinx people make up approximately 30% of the U.S. population, but only about 20% of its entrepreneurs, according to Black Ambition, a recently-launched nonprofit initiative created by Grammy Award-winning artist and producer Pharrell Williams.

In an effort to change that equation, the nonprofit has set up two competitions—the Black Ambition Prize and the Black Ambition HBCU Prize to fund and mentor Black and Latinx entrepreneurs. The areas of focus are tech, design, health care, and consumer products and services.

The Black Ambition Prize is intended for seed-to-early-stage companies. The top prize winner will receive up to $1 million, with additional teams receiving smaller prizes.

(Photo: Black Ambition)

The Black Ambition HBCU Prize offers two tracks to students at historically black colleges and universities. One prize of $50,000 is for students who want to develop a concept. The other top award of $250,000 is for an early-stage idea beyond concept. Other teams will also receive smaller prizes.

The application deadline for both prizes is Thursday, February 18. In July, teams competing for the prizes will present to investors and judges.

Access to Growth Capital is Not Equal 

The goal is of the initiative is to provide more access to capital to underrepresented groups in the startup community.

“If Black and Latinx people were supported to succeed as entrepreneurs at the same rate as white people, the United States could add 1.1 million new businesses and 9 million new jobs to the economy,” according to the nonprofit initiative.

Willa Seldon is a senior advisor to Black Ambition and a partner at The Bridgespan Group. “Black Ambition is focused on closing the racial wealth gap for Black and Latinx people through entrepreneurship,” explains Seldon.

The organization states, “Certain communities have historically, deliberately, and painfully been excluded from access to growth capital for their businesses. We believe entrepreneurs historically left out of traditional investment funnels are building the companies of tomorrow.”

“When you think about Black people in this country, there have been enormous contributions made and a lack of recognition of both the talents and the brilliance of Black and Latinx entrepreneurs,” adds Seldon.

Willa Seldon – Black Ambition and The Bridgespan Group (Photo: The Bridgespan Group)

“You look at, basically, income through salaries or wages, as compared to entrepreneurship, and entrepreneurship can have a much bigger impact on long-term wealth building, as opposed to just short-term income. We know that many entrepreneurs don’t succeed, but when you look at on balance, as a whole, entrepreneurship is a driver of wealth,” says Seldon.

Seldon says the impact of entrepreneurship can extend beyond the actual entrepreneur. “Black and Latinx communities bring entrepreneurship into their families. They bring entrepreneurship into the communities by hiring people, by staying connected in communities around that. So we know, on average, many tend to give back in those ways.”

Creating a Community of Support for Young Entrepreneurs

“Pharrell is very much excited about supporting HBCUs,” says Seldon. “When you look at any major field, whether it’s the legal field, business, health or medicine, you can see that HBCUs have played very much a disproportionate role in educating and graduating those leaders in those fields.”

“How do we build the opportunity for students in every single HBCU to have the opportunity to see and participate in pathways to entrepreneurship?”

Every participant who submits a serious application will be given a membership in Betaworks Studios, a virtual community supporting founders, funders, and entrepreneurs, according to Seldon. Semifinalists will have the opportunity to meet in mentoring cohorts. Finalists will receive one-on-one mentorships.

Seldon explains the goals of Black Ambition are long-term. “Our goal is to have several hundreds be finalists so that we can basically provide that mentorship to as many people as we can at that stage.”

“The other part is to influence the venture community and capital to flow towards these entrepreneurs. To really change people’s minds about who they see as a successful entrepreneur.”

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