Diversity & Inclusion
Entrepreneurs / Events

These DC entrepreneurs are creating space to help other founders grow

Ahead of The Circular Summit, we talked to Emily McMahan of Bunker Labs DC and Shelly Bell of Black Girl Ventures.

Berlin Factory at the Mill with Global Delaware

For Emily McMahan and Shelly Bell, part of entrepreneurship is helping others who are starting businesses. McMahan, the founder of Capitol Post and Bunker Labs DC, and Bell, the founder and CEO of Black Girl Ventures, are two of the D.C.–area entrepreneurs who will be participating with hundreds of female entrepreneurs at the upcoming Circular Summit – two days of workshops, networking and speeches that will be held March 1 and 2 at the United States Institute of Peace.

“Only 2 percent of U.S. women-owned businesses earn more than $1 million in annual revenue. Now it’s time for real, impactful and systemic change,” said Elizabeth Gore, cofounder and chairman of Alice, which is hosting the event. “Last year, the power of this event became crystal clear when we heard from attendees that they secured capital from venture capitalists and angel investors, landed features in outlets, like Inc., Entrepreneur and TechCrunch, and formed partnerships with companies, like Dell and Johnson & Johnson.”

Bell, who was named 2017 Entrepreneur of the Year at the annual Technical.ly DC Awards, has experience as a computer science teacher at T.C. Williams High School in Alexandria and started her own print company Made By A Black Woman in 2015. She founded her latest company Black Girl Ventures in the fall of 2016. Black Girl Ventures hosts monthly meetups and pitch competitions featuring Black female entrepreneurs, which are now attended by hundreds and give the business owners access to social and financial capital.

“It is going to be communities that solve their own social problems,” Bell told Technical.ly DC. “Through authentic relationship building, I see ourselves able to alleviate poverty and curb the generational wealth gap… My personal mission is to activate people helping people. Solutions don’t come from the top down.”

McMahan, who graduated from West Point and spent tours in Iraq and Afghanistan before retiring as a captain in 2009, found inspiration at a Washington Capitals game that she attended with her husband. It was a veteran service night honoring service members for their sacrifices on the field of battle, and she was struck by the show of support from the audience in the stands. McMahan ended up founding Capitol Post, and then took a chance and called up the founder of Bunker Labs, a national nonprofit that helps vets start their own businesses.

“There’s over 300,000 veterans in the D.C. area,” McMahan told Technical.ly DC. “There’s a lot of people who have been affected by their deployment and their service overseas, and we as a nation are doing a great job of taking care of our wounded warriors and vets affected by the traumas of war, but there’s a lot of folks who are doing great things and making great strides in business and we need to do a better job as a nation of highlighting them.”

Bunker Labs DC/Capitol Post is located in a 4,000 sq. ft. coworking space in north Old Town Alexandria. About 30 veteran-owned companies are currently working out of the space, participating in programs and events, including pitch competitions and monthly mixers.

“The military is not an environment where you fail. You can’t. There’s lives at stake,” McMahan said. “It’s very scary starting a company. Being creative and innovative is a very tough, raw experience and creating a space where people can show their vulnerability –it’s tough for the veteran population to say, ‘I don’t know what I’m doing,’ but most vets who have served are going into their first foray into business. We provide a safe space for them to create, explore and understand that it’s okay to fail.”

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