Diversity & Inclusion
DEI / Funding / POC in Tech / Startups

That was fast: Philly Startup Leaders now has up to $550K committed to fund underrepresented founders

"Yes, we're still going to be known for our events, and education and networking, but it's been a dream to also be a part of funding," PSL Executive Director Kiera Smalls said.

Inside 2020's Founded in Philly idea-stage accelerator. (Photo courtesy of Philly Startup Leaders)

This editorial article is a part of Racial Equity Month of Technical.ly's editorial calendar.

As protests against systemic racism took over every state in the country, and in cities across the world in the last few weeks, talks of how race and diversity is handled within the tech community highlighted the fact that there’s often fewer funding opportunities for entrepreneurs from underrepresented backgrounds.

It’s not a new issue to Philly Startup Leaders (PSL) Executive Director Kiera Smalls, who works with founders every day.

Earlier this month, Smalls tweeted that she’d love to see a fund (not an investment) opportunity for entrepreneurs to build tech companies in Philadelphia. She called out that earlier this year, the City of Philadelphia had given the org $150,000 to be shared among entrepreneurs in PSL’s Founded in Philly accelerator program.

But the goal was to ensure it wasn’t a one-time thing, she told Technical.ly. And with the City facing some serious budget cuts due to extra coronavirus expenses, the money would likely have to come from somewhere else. In a letter to CEOs and founders of Philly tech about dismantling racism within the community, Smalls outlined these hopes for funding.

“Consider joining us in helping get more Black and Brown founders to the start line of building a scalable tech company in Philadelphia,” she wrote. “Together, we can make our startup ecosystem more reflective of the demographics of our city — and help all communities truly progress forward. If you’re interested in learning more, please message me directly.”

A few days after her initial tweet, delivery company goPuff had pledged up to $150,000 to help the org continue offering grants to underrepresented founders in Philly.

On Friday, state-backed investment group Ben Franklin Technology Partners (BFTP) also pledged $150,000, saying it would add an additional $100,000 if another company or organization matched it. The money will be given as grants to companies that complete PSL accelerator programing and fit with BFTP’s “investment thesis” of tech-based ventures, it said.

“Ben Franklin’s history of support and partnership with Philly Startup Leaders, and our alignment of goals for the Philadelphia region, make us proud to help PSL do this important work,” said BFTP President and CEO RoseAnn Rosenthal in a statement. “PSL’s accelerator programming has informed a number of Ben Franklin investments, making it a trusted source of early-stage investment pipeline for our region.”

Smalls said she’d seen the announcement of Softbank’s Opportunity Fund, a $100 million fund for founders of color, and imagined how it could work for Philadelphia.

“My immediate reaction was how to put Philly founders on their radar, but realized we need something locally as well,” Smalls said. “Do we keep fighting for national resources? Which is fine to elevate us, but let’s think about what can we do to put resources in place here, too.”

Within the last two weeks, Smalls has had conversations with about 10 companies or organizations that want to get involved. Between the City, goPuff and BFTP, PSL has received $550,000 in commitments. It will allow the org to fund underrepresented founders over the next few years, Smalls said.

The goal is to follow the format of the recent accelerator, in offering grants to participants who applied for money, but also to establish microgrants for founders in the community to help jumpstart their businesses. The idea is to focus on recruitment of more founders to the startup world, and to get more people to the starting line of entrepreneurship.

Smalls said she’s hoping this changes the conversation around what PSL does for founders and Philly’s tech community.

“Yes, we’re still going to be known for our events, and education and networking, but it’s been a dream to also be a part of funding,” she said.

As she said before, Smalls hopes that this isn’t an “of the moment” reaction, and that the momentum continues in actions by company leaders and dollars spent: “If you think funding underrepresented founders is a charity, do us all a favor and start here and here,” she wrote in an email after an interview.

“I think it’s just that more people are waking up, and acknowledging that the tech industry plays a role in generational wealth and generational poverty,” Smalls said. “We see it happen in a bunch of other industries. And there’s more people speaking out, willing to invest. We’re interested in lowering barriers, not adding barriers.”

PSL’s MVP-stage accelerator is accepting applications now through July 17, and will run September through December.

Companies: Gopuff / Ben Franklin Technology Partners / Philly Startup Leaders
Series: Racial Equity Month 2020

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