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To Raise the Economic Tide We Must First Fight Inequality

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Picture of Heath Butler

Heath Butler

There seems to be no escaping the inequality, injustice, and pain that, once again, have been brought to the forefront after the killing of George Floyd on May 25. As a black man in America, all of the micro-aggressions I have ever experienced have come rushing back to me. I am numbed and wonder what must happen to bring about the systemic change that’s been long overdue.

Over the past few years, there have been too many days like May 25, 2020, when I’ve had to acknowledge how fortunate I have been to avoid what George Floyd experienced that day. His was a fate that seems to come disproportionately for black men in this country: unprompted and unnecessary violence from law enforcement.

Immediately my thoughts shifted to: What do I have control over that could help change the situation. How might I nudge society to a place where people of color – like me and George Floyd – no longer have to fear such extreme consequences for our simply existing and moving about in society?

It is within the innovation and black business community where I have the best opportunity to leverage my collective experience for impact. Where I know my way the best and, perhaps, the safest. I mentioned Mercury Fund’s commitment to taking action on diversity and inclusion initiatives for the greater good in an earlier StartupHeat post and discussed how the company provides me with a vital platform to accelerate meaningful impact in my community.

So, maybe it is here in the innovation and black business community that I plant the seeds for systemic change.

With Mercury Fund’s support, I’ve co-founded the Urban Capital Network (UCN), an investment group partnering with venture capital firms to lower the access threshold for working-class qualified investors to achieve venture-type returns. UCN invests a portion of its revenue in other black-owned companies and encourages its investors to do the same to increase the overall GDP. Ultimately, we are using capitalism to create capital for social impact. Through UCN we are using capitalism for the greater good.

A Rising Economic Tide

While there are numerous strategies that can be pursued to create a rising economic tide within the black community, I’m focused on using the power of innovation and entrepreneurialism to get there. We’ve made a lot of progress, but we still have a long way to go.

Throughout history, black people have suffered through numerous phases of oppression and have survived! And along the way, we’ve executed numerous strategies to uplift our people from cycles of poverty, including but not limited to:

  • Faith-based strategies to build our faith and keep our hope
  • Education-based (professional degrees) strategies focused on us increasing our knowledge and ability to compete
  • Policy-based strategies (lobbying and voting) focused on legislating equality and inclusion
  • Needs-based entrepreneurship (mom/pop and small/medium-sized business resources) focused on wealth building through inclusion.

But we haven’t ventured into or executed innovation-based entrepreneurship. This is where high-growth, tech-oriented startups can uplift hundreds or thousands of families from a poverty-like or lower-middle-class, socio-economic status to a higher middle-class, high net worth, or to life-changing, generational wealth status.

Some of us have found this upward path and been successful, but we’ve not strategically built the infrastructure to facilitate or accelerate the on-ramping of our people into this world. And therein lies the opportunity.

The Innovation Economy and Black Community Opportunities

The innovation economy is shifting the focus of societies around the world. Instead of economies focused on developing and distributing valuable commodities from scarce resources, society’s new goal is to increase the quality of life for all and expand wealth by developing new business models, products and services, and forms of production.

–Innovation expert and author Phil McKinney

The Innovation Economy is based upon the idea that knowledge, entrepreneurship, innovation, technology, and collaboration fuel economic growth. And thanks to easier access to cheaper, ubiquitous technology, more people of all backgrounds are able to participate in and contribute to that economy as disruptors and innovators.

According to a 2017 Information Technology & Innovation Foundation study, “The number of technology-based start-ups surged 47 percent in the last decade. These firms still account for a relatively small share of all businesses, but they have an outsized impact on economic growth because they provide better-paying, longer-lasting jobs than other start-ups, and they contribute more to innovation, productivity, and competitiveness.”

Within this world of innovation and entrepreneurialism, to open up more opportunities for black men and women, I think it’s critical that we strategically empower and embrace three particular stakeholder groups as much as we invest in the entrepreneurs/founders:

  1. Employees – On-ramp more black professionals into the critical path jobs within high-growth, tech-oriented startups
  2. Advisors & Board – Help more senior black professionals understand how to leverage their skills, talents, and networks to be advisors and board members for high-growth, tech-oriented startups
  3. Financing Partners – Democratize access for blacks to participate in the ownership of high-growth, tech-oriented startups.
Striving Towards Racial Justice

A recent McKinsey study referenced a 2017 Federal Reserve report showing the average U.S. black family had a total wealth of just $17,600, while the average U.S. white family’s total wealth was $171,000. If the business community genuinely wants to “do something,” it should help fix the systemic inequities that overwhelmingly produce unfair outcomes in black communities.

Even if the economic waters continue to trend upward for black entrepreneurs, employees, and business owners participating in the innovation economy, horrible incidents like what happened in Minneapolis a few months ago still remind me that no black man or woman is immune to systemic oppression and the hate that underpins it. While economic justice may not equal racial justice, it will help in the ongoing fight for it. And in that fight, may we all as black businessmen and women continue to boost our self-worth as the rising economic tide helps increase our financial worth.

I challenge all of my white friends and colleagues to continue to be open-minded because as Angela Davis reminds us, “In a racist society, it’s not enough to be non-racist, we must be anti-racist.” But how do you climb that huge mountain? Try starting with Robin Diangelo’s New York Times bestselling book White Fragility, which explores the counterproductive reactions white people have when their assumptions about race are challenged, and how these reactions maintain racial inequality.

If we truly want to see things change, we need those closest to maintaining the lie to become enlightened and do their part to create a just society.

Next time on StartupHeat, I’ll talk about the value of marketplace-based business models and provide you with a practical example of one in action. Until then, stay curious, stay masked, focus on the signal, and make mindful decisions on your journey to success!

Until next time, stay curious, focus on the signal and make mindful decisions on your journey to success,


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