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Breaking barriers in entrepreneurship

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While entrepreneurship in itself is daunting and difficult, being a minority entrepreneur presents its own challenges. Among New Orleans entrepreneurs, there is a compelling theme that turns these challenges into opportunities.

Discussions of diversity are often centered on race. But diversity, in its essence, means much more than that. Take a look at Ras Asan and Derrius Quarles’, co-founders of Million Dollar Scholar, and the entrepreneurial journey that led them here.

Young, Black, and Bold

Ras Asan was driving through his hometown in southeast Cleveland with a bare bank account and no clear indicator of what was next for his career. He'd just graduated with a degree in Sociology from Morehouse, a historically black university in Atlanta, who's notable roster of alumni include icons like Martin Luther King Jr., Spike Lee, and Samuel Jackson, to name a few.

Asan had been working on a financial literacy program he'd helped develop for young students at Morehouse the summer after his graduation. A change in administration eliminated the program and altered his plans.

It wasn't his first experience starting a new venture. As a young man from a modest background with little means, Asan says, he had always been an entrepreneur by nature.

“Entrepreneurship was a necessity for me. If I wanted surplus, I had to figure out a way to create it. I started watering flowers when I was in high school, and in an entrepreneurship program in the 9th grade, I developed my first landscape company," Asan says.

And it wouldn’t be his last.

After graduating from Morehouse, Asan returned to his hometown of Mt. Pleasant, and like any recent college graduate, he was trying to figure things out.

Then, one day, he received a message from his former classmate, Derrius Quarles. Asan and Quarles had first met as students in Ghana in 2010 on an extracurricular program that took students on a one month Pan-African global tour.

o-founders Ras Asan and Derrius Quarles at PowerMoves.NOLA, an incubator that supports minority entrepreneurs in New Orleans

o-founders Ras Asan and Derrius Quarles at PowerMoves.NOLA, an incubator that supports minority entrepreneurs in New Orleans

Quarles had previously launched, Million Dollar Scholar an online platform that helps high school students secure scholarship funding.

His co-founder had decided to join the Peace Corps, and he was searching for a new partner.

Million Dollar Scholar had just been accepted into Velocity Indiana, a 100-day business accelerator program that helps foster entrepreneurship in southern Indiana and neighboring Louisville, Kentucky, when Quarles asked Asan to join him.

Asan says it was a “Celestine” moment, referring to a spiritual notion that coincidences occur with a meaningful purpose. It took him less than 48 hours to accept his offer, pack his bags, and drive from Cleveland to the South Side of Chicago to pick up Quarles, borrowing gas money from his parents.

They arrived in Louisville just before a big storm blew through the Midwest, and settled into a shotgun house dubbed the "hacker's hostel" for the next five months.

Most entrepreneurs can vividly recall a moment in their lives, like Asan and Quarles, when they were up against some sort of hardship, or struggle. It might be the weeks of crashing on friends' couches, the bank accounts lingering on their last dollars, or the dinners of ramen noodles.

Entrepreneurship often comes with stories colored with pivotal moments in founders' pasts. And while they're both bright, brimming with ambition and excitement, Asan and Quarles don't fit the bill of most founders, who tend to be white males, according to a report published in August of 2013 by the national bureau of economic research.

Although launching a startup has seemingly developed a sexy, glamorous appeal in the new tech age, it is no easy undertaking. As a young man of color, Asan says entrepreneurship presents its own challenges, and the experience hasn't come without its share of disheartening moments.

Like the time Asan and Quarles competed in the Tulane Business Model competition, for example.

They had pitched, and although they didn't win, Asan considered his first time pitching on stage, a success. He was excited, but he noticed an older guy in the crowd staring at him with what he says felt like a look of contempt. He thought for a moment that he may have just imagined it. So, he walked up and greeted him, “Hi, how are you doing?” Asan asked.

The gentleman rolled his eyes and walked away, confirming Asan's doubts, and making it evident that even in a city where culture and diversity are celebrated, prejudice still exists.

But that wasn’t enough to discourage the young founder.

“You understand that it's there, and that you're going to come up against that, but you keep going,” Asan says.

They were gaining momentum.

Four months later, the two returned to New Orleans to participate in a PowerMoves.NOLA pitch competition hosted during Essence Festival. PowerMoves.NOLA, an organization that supports minority entrepreneurs, invited the duo to participate in a program after the festival.

Although they've been met with support and encouragement, Asan says it hasn’t come without challenges too.

In the startup world where so much of an individual's success hinges on building trust, Asan says he feels that he’s often faced with unspoken apprehension.

“When I'm doing customer discovery interviews, I can't just walk up to someone the same way that you can, ask random questions about their life, and get the same reaction. There's this constant feeling of somehow being discredited,” Asan says.

And that creates a burden of feeling the need to over compensate in many ways, Asan says. For a long time, that even translated to choosing the clothes he wore.

“I think about the guys in Silicon Valley who wear t-shirts, flip flops and ripped jeans, and at first I wasn't doing that, because I felt that was an excuse to discredit me. So I would always wear my suit, head-to-toe. But then I thought, you know what, it's my right as an entrepreneur to wear what I want,” Asan says.

Ras Asan outside of the PowerMoves.NOLA office

Ras Asan outside of the PowerMoves.NOLA office

He's growing comfortable in expressing who he is as both a person, and an entrepreneur.

And he's using his experience to help empower students in the next generation to pave their own way. He believes that education is the gateway to creating those opportunities.

“Microenterprise drives jobs. I think that diversity in entrepreneurship is important to evangelize the message of business building, enterprise, and innovation. It's teaching people to solve their own problems. That's why it's important,” Asan says.

Asan and Quarles are currently establishing relationships with schools in New Orleans, a charter school in the bay area, and hosting pilot programs in Chicago and southern Indiana. The next critical step for the company is securing capital to hire for tech, marketing, and legal help.

Bridging the Gap

While there are disparities that exist among minorities in entrepreneurship, there are people working to provide others with a vision or a dream, an opportunity to turn it into a reality, regardless of who they are, or where they come from.

Leslie Jacobs founded PowerMoves.NOLA in an effort to increase the number of venture-backed minority-founded companies both locally and nationally, and recruited Earl Robinson to serve as president.

Leslie Jacobs, founder of PowerMoves.NOLA, welcoming the group’s first fellows

Leslie Jacobs, founder of PowerMoves.NOLA, welcoming the group’s first fellows

In his role, Robinson helps minority entrepreneurs execute their ideas and connects them with a network of supporters. Robinson, who brings a vast wealth of knowledge and experience from his early career in finance and investment, says he has always had a strong desire to work with entrepreneurs in some capacity.

He raises the point that diversity encompasses many things.

“There are a couple of layers of diversity in the way I think of it. There's ethnic diversity, and there's diversity of thought,” Robinson says.

But in terms of race and gender, Robinson says, having diversity adds value to any business.

“If entrepreneurship continues to go the way it historically has, it means that you're only celebrating the brilliance of one gender and one race. That's incredibly short sighted, and it's also not the best investment strategy, as no gender or race has control over all the really good ideas,” Robinson says.

In fact, research shows that diversity can be an asset for companies. In a report by the London School of Economics titled Cultural Diversity, Innovation, and Entrepreneurship, companies with diverse management are more likely to introduce new product innovations than those with homogeneous “top teams.”

“The reason PowerMoves exists is to celebrate and nurture the ideas that may die on the vine out in the regular world, and to have a place that's very safe for those ideas and people to thrive. I think it's really, really important in an entrepreneurial ecosystem to have at least one place where diversity is the rule, not the exception,” Robinson says.

Given New Orleans' demographics, and its' unique positioning as a city for innovation, Robinson says it could be a laboratory for diversity in entrepreneurship.

Earl Robinson, president of PowerMoves.NOLA

Earl Robinson, president of PowerMoves.NOLA

“It's really on us to get it right here in New Orleans, because it's a city that's 56% African American. So this should be a good testing ground for how to make sure that the new sectors, the tech and innovation sectors, are diverse,” Robinson says.

The facts show that businesses owned by disadvantaged minorities tend to be smaller and less successful than non-minority owned businesses. On average, black and Latino-owned businesses have lower sales, hire fewer employees, and have smaller payrolls than white-owned businesses (U.S. Census Bureau 2006).

The relative lack of success among black-owned businesses is attributable in part to owners who have less startup capital, disadvantaged family backgrounds, and less education, the report says.

So, how do you address those problems?

“You go back to the beginning in the education system, you convince entrepreneurs of color who are in other cities to move here, and you continue to work with the ecosystem here to convince everyone of the benefits of diversity,” Robinson says.

PowerMoves.NOLA is in early talks with charter schools in New Orleans to implement a coding program to help entrepreneurs of color break into tech, an industry that hasn't historically been inclusive in terms of racial diversity.

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Tech tycoons like Google, Yahoo and Facebook were thrust into the public spotlight after releasing diversity reports this past summer showing that African-Americans make up only 1%-2% of their tech work force. Robinson says you can help break those barriers by having role models.

“When there is an African-American Mark Zuckerberg who becomes a billionaire in his 20’s, you'll see a lot more black kids who think about entrepreneurship as a path, and who de-risk launching a startup in their minds. It's going to be more accessible, more achievable, more real,” Robinson says.

Breaking the Mold

Uchechi Kalu Jacobson, co-founder of wedOcracy a social platform that helps couples plan their weddings, is shattering all of the stereotypes in tech as a 36-year-old African-American woman. She co-founded the company with her husband, Peter, when they were planning their Nigerian-American Jewish wedding two years ago.

Kalu Jacobson, a first-generation Nigerian immigrated with her family to Missouri when she was just two years old, and went on to graduate from UC Berkeley as valedictorian with a degree in creative writing and education. She performed as a spoken word poet for nearly ten years before launching wedOcracy.

In addition to running the company, Kalu Jacobson hosts a "Yes We Code" chat on Twitter where she leads a discussion about diversity in technology, including addressing the challenges of being a woman in the field.

Uchechi Kalu Jacobson, and her husband and co-founder Peter Jacobson pitch wedOcracy to judges for The Idea Village IDEAx accelerator program

Uchechi Kalu Jacobson, and her husband and co-founder Peter Jacobson pitch wedOcracy to judges for The Idea Village IDEAx accelerator program

Kalu Jacobson describes what it's like to walk into a room filled with venture capitalists comprised of mostly older men, and pitch her new-age tech business.

“I've had experiences where after we've pitched, the VC’s turn to Peter to ask the questions. And I noticed it's usually about two things—the technology and math, like the lifetime value of a customer or your subscription and numbers,” Kalu Jacobson says.

She says experiences like these are disappointing, but they also present a unique chance.

“Every time I step into those rooms, I feel that it's an opportunity to stand up for what I believe in, choose to believe myself and debunk assumptions,” Kalu Jacobson says.

And she says diversity isn't just about race, which is what often leads discussions on the topic. It's about gender, age, experience, and industry, encompassing many different elements.

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“I think when we talk about diversity, it's really important to unpack it, and talk about all of it. I believe it means all of us,” Kalu Jacobson says.

For example, as a man, Kalu Jacobson says her husband, Peter, brings diversity to the multi-billion dollar wedding industry, which is dominated by women.

Considering all of its meanings, she is optimistic about what the future of diversity in entrepreneurship looks like.

“Now is an awesome time to be a woman founder in technology because while there may not be a lot of diversity, that's changing,” Kalu Jacobson says. “And it will only continue to change when we have interviews like this, talk about the issues, and support each other, because I think it's from those positions of power, that we have the agency to change things.”

While each of them offer a different perspective, Asan, Robinson, and Kalu Jacobson share the view that having candid conversations about diversity in entrepreneurship is a step in the right direction.

This post originally was published on The Idea Village's #IDEAinsider blog. Summer Suleiman writes for The Idea Village and NolaVie. Contact her at [email protected].

Summer Suleiman is a health writer and blogger who writes about her experience living healthy (or trying to) in a city best known for its fabulous (unhealthy) food and debauchery. You can read about her journey saying no to po’boys and Sazeracs, and yes to kale and juicing, at www.HealthySummer.me or on Twitter @summersuleiman.