Startup founders who are black receive less than 1% of venture capital funding annually, according to research from Crunchbase, Kauffman Institute and CB Insights.
Cornell’s Black Entrepreneurs in Training (BET) – founded in the spring of 2018 as a student club to inspire and inform black student entrepreneurs – is aiming to change that through the establishment of workshops, guest speakers and entrepreneurial mentorship.
BET, which runs from October to April, aims to increase the participation of students of color in Cornell’s entrepreneurship ecosystem and generate an active and visible group of black alumni who’ve founded successful companies. Each fall, the program accepts students of color who are passionate about entrepreneurship, and offers networking events and workshops.
“Connecting our BET participants with successful alumni is an invaluable learning experience, and enables them to envision their future as startup leaders,” BET co-founder Jehron Petty ’20 said.
Petty – with co-founders Ansumana Bangura ’20 and Julia Reeves ’20 – reached out to Andrea Ippolito ’06, M.Eng. ’07, lecturer in Cornell’s Engineering Management Program and program director of W.E. Cornell to establish a partnership with the Center for Regional Economic Advancement, which would allow the program to grow after the founders graduate.
Notable alumni include: venture capitalist Marlon Nichols, MBA ’11, and startup CEOs Elizabeth Ngonzi, MMH ’98, Earl Allen Roach III, MBA ’19, and Isa Watson, M.S. ‘12, founder and CEO of Squad, an invite-only app allowing users to form connections in real life.
Watson, named an Inc. Magazine “30 under 30” entrepreneur in 2018, recently gave an invited talk, “Unlocking Innovation: Intrapreneurship and Entrepreneurship,” at Cornell, followed by a dinner with BET members.
“As a young black man, it’s rare that I find examples of successful people in the tech industry that look like me,” Jalen Jenkins ’23 said. “Meeting Isa Watson was not only refreshing in its own way but inspiring as well. I was given a great amount of insight into what it’s like to be a successful entrepreneur.”
BET participants who want to act on what they’ve learned in the fall semester are invited to reapply for the spring semester of the program. During this time, a smaller cohort receives more hands-on-experience and focused mentorship, with the goal of launching a product or service.
Participants in the BET program also complete a National Science Foundation Innovation Corps short course to further prepare them for their entrepreneurial journeys, including next-stage entrepreneurship programs at Cornell, such as eLab or Commercialization Fellows.
“Entrepreneurship is something I have always been interested in, but I didn’t know how to start,” said BET member Oluomachi Onyekwere ’21. “BET has encouraged me to believe that I can pursue entrepreneurship and that someone who looks like me can actually thrive in a business space.”
BET’s second cohort consisted of 42 students in the fall semester; of that group, 14 students continued this spring. The current BET cohort and their innovations are:
- Raymond Brown ’21: An app that utilizes social media engagement to assist users with setting and achieving goals;
- Ayende Chand ’22 and Alexei Tulloch ’22: A platform similar to Uber Eats, but for alcoholic beverages;
- Aisha Conte ’23: A nonprofit eyewear company that caters to people with Afro-centric features;
- Silas David ’21: A comprehensive digital health enrichment platform;
- Absetou Diakite ’21: A marketing company that provides alternatives to traditional menstrual hygiene products in bathrooms;
- Clive Duncan ’20: A financial planning app to encourage healthy financial behaviors;
- Alexander Eshelman ’22: Modular backpacks that are customizable to the lifestyles of wearers;
- Joyelle Fleming ’21: A device that allows you to reseal wine bottles at home;
- Justin Kobler ’21: A social media platform that guarantees users a chance to go viral for a limited period of time and gain exposure outside their social circle;
- Jess Lott ’20: A nighttime entertainment space for lesbian women;
- Oluomachi Onyekwere ’21: A platform that helps patients from vulnerable groups develop health literacy and the ability to communicate their needs; and
- Miah Sanchez ’22: A networking app that connects black college students with black professional mentors.
BET is focused on growing its network of entrepreneurial mentors and establishing an advisory council. The organization is also seeking sponsors to support programming, including covering the costs of guest speakers and conference attendance for participating students.
BET students recently attended Startup Grind’s Global 2020 Conference in California’s Silicon Valley, to explore what entrepreneurship looks like on a global scale and to help them cultivate an entrepreneurial network beyond Cornell.
“Startup Grind was an eye-opening experience,” said Alexander Eshelman ’22. “I was given a chance to hear the stories of entrepreneurs doing what I’m trying to do. It was also inspiring to be surrounded by others like me who are all trying to start companies.”
Sara Baier is a marketing and communications specialist for the Center for Regional Economic Advancement.