Black- and brown-owned businesses getting more attention; can it be sustained?

Suddenly, it seems, more people are intrigued by investing in businesses owned or led by people of color.

Maybe it was the George Floyd killing. Or the COVID-19 pandemic and data indicating some populations were hit harder than others. Or maybe it is opportunism driven by a flood of federal dollars into sectors that could attract private money.

I prefer to think it’s more about recognizing business opportunities that were overlooked and underestimated for a long time.

By and large, people who invest money want to make money. They may be great citizens and care about the communities where they live, but they are rarely driven by philanthropy. “Return on investment” — ROI — is still at the top of the list, especially for angel and venture capitalists who regularly risk large amounts of money. Because such investors lose money on seven or eight deals out of 10, they need to make up for it with a few investments that pay off.

More than ever, there are angel and venture capital investors — including corporate investors — willing to place bets on young companies that didn’t get a close look at few years ago. These are often companies led by people of color or women.

In Wisconsin, there are some notable examples of investors who see such market opportunities. Generation Growth Capital in Milwaukee, led by former Wisconsin Commerce Secretary and attorney Cory Nettles, was early to the scene. Jason Fields and Dark Knight Capital Ventures emerged within the last five years. Alchemy Angels was formed by Dana Guthrie, who now leads Gateway Capital, one of the funds under the Badger Fund of Funds umbrella. Northwestern Mutual has launched its Black Founder Accelerator, and entrepreneurs Khalif and Que El-Amin have created the Young Enterprising Society, which has expanded beyond its Milwaukee roots to Green Bay and soon to Madison. The El-Amin brothers spoke Nov. 4 at the Wisconsin Early Stage Symposium in Madison.

Other such funds outside Wisconsin have come to the attention of the Wisconsin Technology Council, which aspires to plug them into the state’s emerging company scene.

Before investors can put money in minority-led companies, however, those firms must identify market opportunities and hone the skills and tools needed to create a successful business. The latest entrant in getting that job done is the Urban League of Greater Madison and its Black Business Hub.

The ULGM has partnered with gener8tor, which runs accelerators and related programs across the United States and beyond, to launch “gBeta Urban League.” It will have physical space in South Madison, with a groundbreaking planned for later this year. However, its heart and soul will be intense programming, networking, and mentorship.

The partnership with gener8tor will lend “immediate excellence and credibility” to such programming, said Edward Lee, senior vice president for the ULGM. “It’s not an entitlement. It’s not a free anything,” Lee said, but a focused approach to get entrepreneurs the mentoring they need.

In Dane County, Lee said, only a tiny fraction of businesses with more than one employee are owned by nonwhite people. Because businesses with diverse owners can often tap into markets and customers that other businesses cannot, investors can be attracted to those with scalable potential.

“That ownership gap is a gap that really needs to be filled,” said ULGM President and Chief Operating Officer Ruben Anthony. “Plus, the more that young people see there are opportunities here in Wisconsin for people who look like them, the more likely they are to stay and to reverse the ‘brain drain’ we hear about.”

No one should expect that every new business owned by a Black or brown entrepreneur will make it. The entrepreneurial world doesn’t work that way for anyone, white or otherwise. The more those businesses can be mentored and given the tools to succeed, however, the higher the chances for success. For investors, improving the odds of success equals return on investment.

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