(Photo by Holly Quinn)
This article appears in a 12-part series on minority entrepreneurship and is underwritten by the Wilmington Alliance. It was independently reported and not reviewed by Wilmington Alliance before publication.
Tamara Varella learned that there was value in her point of view over 20 years ago when, as a young, Black single mother of four, she was offered her first consulting job for Food Bank of Delaware.
“I had never heard of a consultant,” she said. “I was working at the Food Bank of Delaware as an agency manager. The president of the organization would constantly bring me into these manager meetings because of how I viewed things. I was their target market — I was on food stamps, I was standing in line at food closets, but more importantly, the way that I viewed information and the way that I gave them feedback and strategy was nothing like anyone else in the building. A lot of the people in charge of these larger organizations have never been in poverty, they’ve never been the people that they’re servicing, there’s a major disconnect in how they think things should happen.”
One day she was asked by the president of the org to work on a special project — but this time, they said it was time to talk compensation.
“I was like, ‘What?!'” Varella said. “I thought it was going to be part of my hourly job. She said, ‘No, I’m going to hire you as a consultant. Do you know you can get paid for what’s in your head?'”
That was the start of Varella’s company, Manifest Business Consultants.
“Someone on a way higher level than me, the president of an organization, saw my potential. I’d probably be an hourly employee today had she not said, ‘You deserve this for what’s in your head.'”
After years of running her business, she became one of the minds behind the WIN Factory Wealth League, the organization behind the WIN Factory coworking space, the first Black-owned space of its kind in Delaware.
“Originally there was no vision for a coworking space,” Varella said. “We started the Wealth League when we were all in a coworking space at the CoIN Loft. I felt like it was our duty to help other businesses to do what we’ve been able to do.”
The group of Black entrepreneurs, including Malcolm Coley and Newdy Felton, cofounders of Influencers Lab Media and Futures First Gaming (and Varella’s fellow RealLIST Connectors 2020 honorees), ultimately pulled the trigger on the project after an article in the News Journal said that Wilmington was the worst place to build the American Dream.
“I was like, you know what? I’ve had enough,” said Varella. “They were always trying to throw out this negative narrative and for some reason only the Black and Brown people were believing it. Meanwhile, others were growing and getting millions of dollars in contracts, opening these amazing facilities, and I’m like, ‘I’m going to prove them wrong.'”
Every Wednesday night, the Wealth League brings in someone from the area who has achieved some level of success to share actionable advice and strategies for its MASTERMINDS series — which, with a pivot to the virtual “Camp Corona” series, has remained active through the pandemic.
“MASTERMINDS and our programs in general are very different from more mainstream [programs] in that we make it very clear to our speakers we want you to come here and give tangible steps that we can take and implement the next morning,” Varella said. “Others focus more on concept and theory.”
WIN Factory’s unique position within Delaware’s Black and brown communities makes them appealing to organizations looking to create their own programs to help minority entrepreneurs. Unfortunately, that doesn’t always translate to contracts, as the lessons Varella learned as a young consulting entrepreneur about knowing the value of her expertise sometimes goes out the window.
Increasingly, the founders say, organizations approach the Wealth League after a program has already been developed, asking them to “partner” by spreading the word about it for free.
“There’s a mindset of ‘You’re not good enough to come to the table, but you are good enough for us to use you,'” Varella said. “If it really is about supporting Black and Brown businesses — and Wilmington has always had a problem with capacity building — [they] would have come to organizations [at the start] and said, ‘Hey listen, we want to help you help them. The people who have the funding would rather go ahead and create their own little programs without even asking us what Black people need. And then once they put it together, it’s ‘Can you guys jump on a call?'”
“The program is already done. You want my database. For no money. If the program or service is to help Black and brown businesses, why can’t it start with helping a Black and brown business?”
Coley shares her frustration.
“These contracts are facilitated through other agencies and then they come and call us because we got that juice, we got that energy,” he said. “It’s almost like cultural appropriation on a corporate level.”
Sometimes, funders start their own programs instead of providing money to Black-owned organizations to do work that’s similar, but more culturally nuanced.
“As a broad example, we first saw it 10 to 15 years ago with the United Way,” said Varella. “You’re taking funds that were supposed to go out to programs and you’re putting it into [internal] programs that are in direct competition with programs that you used to fund.”
Coley says it’s like being invited to a table only to have to fight for scraps.
“If you think about it, that’s why Black culture is Black culture, because we’re at the end of the table fighting for the scraps,” he said. “No. We’re much much stronger than that, we’re much much more intellectual and we have too have too much influence to be brought in at the end. ”
“I would love for someone to say, ‘We have this money and we would love for someone to help these businesses,'” Varella said. “Tell us what they need exactly, and we craft a plan for each one of those businesses. If it’s sales, we make those connections to get those sales. If they need expansion capital, then let’s do that. I would love to see something where it’s really focused on the success of the business long term.”
Some of the ideas the Wealth League is developing include a program similar to the U.S. Small Business Administration’s All Small Mentor/Protégé Program where larger companies mentor small businesses and build them into their revenue stream via the contracts, offering opportunities to make money to sustain the business and reducing the need to take on debt.
At the end of the day, they say, the Wealth League won’t support programs for Black and brown entrepreneurs with missing cultural considerations, and will ask for fair compensation.
“It might work for mainstream, but I know that it’s missing a component,” Varella said. “And you have to pay me for that component, because that’s what I do for a living.”
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