This article is sponsored by TEDCO and was reviewed before publication.
Pitch Creator founder Jason Tagler spent months in Baltimore watching entrepreneurs struggle during pitch events. The prospective companies weren’t the problem — the issue was the delivery of the pitches.
The entrepreneurs couldn’t effectively communicate their vision. That’s why Tagler started the Pitch Creator company in 2014. The social impact organization offers online courses that teach entrepreneurs how to communicate with investors and raise growth capital.
“I said to myself, ‘If I could teach a class and just help one entrepreneur break through, that would help them raise capital,’” he said. “With that growth capital, they’d be able to hire and create high-quality jobs.”
The longtime investor at Baltimore private equity firm Camden Partners is not just helping founders for a few minutes of their pitch. The coursework shapes how they make connections to investors, providing insight into the nuances of pitching.
While strong communication is a must-have skill for entrepreneurs, this gets at how a pitch is just one component of a much larger issue. Early-stage investors play an essential role in how startup companies are built and grown. But the glaring lack of entrepreneurs of color getting support early on has created a massive gap.
In 2020, U.S. companies raised a record nearly $150 billion of venture capital. But of that amount, just $1 billion — less than 1% — went to Black founders, according to Crunchbase.
That statistic encapsulates the myriad of issues that have long complicated entrepreneurship for minorities, from not knowing how to make an effective pitch, to being economically disadvantaged and struggling to get on investors’ radars, to having a hard time expanding one’s network as well.
Maryland offers a broad ecosystem for entrepreneurs looking to turn their idea into a business, but these issues won’t change without intentional efforts from leaders across various industries to improve upon the resources and systems we have in place.
Through speaking with several leaders in Maryland, it’s clear that there is a shift taking place. Funders and executives alike are making concerted efforts to make Maryland a more inclusive and accessible ecosystem.
Since 1998, TEDCO has provided funding, resources, and networking opportunities for entrepreneurs looking to start a business. In fall of 2018, the Maryland-backed agency recognized a way to support minority entrepreneurs through one fund that addresses one portion of the gap: access to friends and family capital at the earliest stages of company development.
TEDCO’s Pre-Seed Builder Fund provides early-stage funding for underserved founders. The fund isn’t limited to minorities, though. It’s for anyone who demonstrates they’re economically or socially disadvantaged.
TEDCO has invested in more than 14 companies since the Builder Fund launched. Now, those companies have combined to accumulate more than 65 employees and revenues of over $18 million.
Chief Investment Officer Jack Miner said TEDCO is intentional about finding entrepreneurs in areas that may typically be ignored such as getting involved with founders in rural Maryland and seeking out Black women as well.
“We purposefully look in areas that are atypical to find minority founders or investors or mentors, all of which are really important to the ecosystem,” he said. “The biggest thing is to positively affect change. What would be a great statistic for us is where in the state of Maryland, we’re investing at the same level as the population. So, if you’ve got 20% of a certain demographic, then our portfolio is 20% of that demographic.”
Miner highlighted a lack of the proper connections as the primary reason why so many founders of color struggle to attract early investors.
“If you’re sitting in a room of all white investors and you’re a Black investor trying to get into that space, statistically, it’s a challenge,” he said.
The Builder Fund serves as a launchpad for entrepreneurs of color, allowing them to build the foundation of their business and set themselves up to assist others who have been in their same position.
“Those successes are really important,” Miner said. “They make a big difference. Seasoned minority founders want to spend extra time with someone they want to help, and ensure that they don’t face the same buzzsaw that they did when they were building their company.”
When it comes to expanding funding options for minority entrepreneurs, the T. Rowe Price Foundation has been a champion in that effort through grant funding for programs that provide entrepreneurs with early-stage capital.
The foundation has given $143 million in direct grants and matched donations since its inception in 1981, and it’s collaborated with several nonprofits to empower minorities as well.
It partnered with Baltimore Corps to create the Elevation Awards, a grant-making program that offers resources for entrepreneurs of color. The firm also provided seed funding to bring Kiva to Baltimore, which is a microloan platform that crowdfunds 0% interest loans to underserved entrepreneurs — also run through Baltimore Corps.
According to foundation President John Brothers, Kiva Baltimore has been the No. 1 spot nationally for funding Black women. He also said Black women are starting businesses six times faster than the next group.
“Entrepreneurs are not all the same,” Brothers said. “They’re all coming to this work at a variety of different levels and some of them are needing different things to help them get there. We’re trying to provide a tray of a variety of things that folks can take a la carte and use.”
The foundation is starting a program next year called Entrepreneurs in Residence that will give four innovators of color financial support and access to T. Rowe Price’s resources.
T. Rowe built upon these programs by founding a CoLab in 2020 to provide a space for nonprofits and intermediaries working with local small businesses to collaborate and share resources. It’s set to open for in-person meetings following the end of the ongoing pandemic.
The foundation is also starting a program next year called Entrepreneurs in Residence. This will allow four innovators of color to receive financial support and access to T. Rowe Price’s resources within its firm.
In April of next year, the foundation will host an event with four investors and four potential donors of color, as well, connecting the two parties in hopes of business opportunities.
“We see a number of innovators and entrepreneurs of color say ‘I can’t get access to rooms of investors’ and then we hear folks at T. Rowe who are like ‘I see the names of exciting entrepreneurs and want to get in the room with them’,” Brothers said. “Both want to be in the room but don’t know how to get to each other so we’re creating that room.”
All of the foundation’s efforts were executed in order to fill gaps in the pipeline for minority entrepreneurs, from those who are just starting out all the way up to CEOs and executives.
“A healthy pipeline means anybody from idea stage to whatever [level] can enter the marketplace and have things helping them get to the next level,” Brothers said. “We realize in communities of color that organizations are struggling in terms of the capacities they need in order to take their efforts to the next level.”
Brown Advisory is a private, Baltimore-based investment firm. It supports entrepreneurs of color through direct investing as limited partners in venture capital funds in Baltimore and D.C.
“We don’t have a dedicated bucket, but we have a number of managers that bring a lens around different networks and different founders,” said Private Equity Analyst Keith Stone. “It tends to be more through that type of lens where we’re partnering with people that see the value of fishing in pools that have diverse representation.”
Stone is also a member of the DMV chapter of national nonprofit BLCK VC, which looks to double the percentage of Black venture capitalists by 2024 through professional development and networking, leading to increased funding opportunities for Black entrepreneurs.
Hopefully, Baltimore as an ecosystem will become a real example of how to apply a more intentional equity focus.
“When you’ve got a whole network of venture capitalists that have found a way to break into the market, control dollars, and invest in companies, that’s different than what you would’ve expected even a couple of years ago within the DMV market and certainly nationally,” Stone said.
Stone emphasized it’s important for the firm’s fund managers to invest in minority founders organically, and the firm constantly has conversations with the managers to assess how to broaden their networks.
“While progress is being made in terms of diversifying who’s actually managing those pools of capital, the reality is we live in a world where a lot of capital is managed by white people,” Stone said. “A lot of progress can be made through intentionality on their part about where funds are being allocated.”
Stone said the death of George Floyd and the Black Lives Matter protests that followed in the summer of 2020 altered the way the firm interacted with clients, engaging in more open and public conversations about social issues.
“Hopefully, Baltimore as an ecosystem will continue to develop and be supported and become a real example of how to apply a more intentional equity focus when building out and helping apply an equity lens through its core,” he said.
Many startup founders have no business background and can struggle to effectively portray their vision to potential investors. It’s difficult to develop those communication skills without some sort of guideline.
“It would be like asking someone to learn a language when they’ve never been to the country and don’t have a book,” Pitch Creator’s Tagler said. “We’re trying to provide that book.”
The first course Tagler created covered the fundamentals of communicating with investors, whether you’re pitching to angel investors, seed investors, or venture capitalists. The long-term impact of Pitch Creator courses is helping founders raise enough capital to employ other people and pass their communication skills along.
“Trying to create jobs is the ultimate goal,” Tagler said. “If you help the entrepreneur raise growth capital and learn that skill, in a long term that’s a huge multiplier effect because they’re doing it over the course of a lifetime. But they’re also becoming an example for others in their community.”
Director of Operations Mustafa Wahid noticed Tagler’s work early on and said it resonated with him since he worked his way up from the ground to becoming CEO of edtech company TransitioningU in June 2016.
Now, Wahid also serves as an adjunct professor at Johns Hopkins University, incorporating the teachings from Pitch Creator courses into his lessons.
“I went through the pain of trying to raise capital,” Wahid said. “Now, the fact that I get the chance to teach that in the classroom, what I’m really doing is bridging that gap between academia and industry.”
Wahid said he hopes Pitch Creator’s lessons help entrepreneurs of color since they often need to communicate in ways that they may not be used to. With white males making up 58% of venture capitalists, entrepreneurs of color must adjust their vernacular at times in order to connect with their audience.
“There are differences [in how entrepreneurs of color must communicate], but one of the ways to make change with those differences is to share information,” he said. “At the end of the day, founders of all colors and backgrounds need good information. If you can get that to them, you can level the playing field.”
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