Discovering Baltimore's Social Entrepreneurs of Color through Design

I moved to Baltimore in August ‘16 all the way from Bombay, India in the hope of gaining some perspective and deepening my understanding and practice of design. Just like India, I see a place that’s moving forward yet being pulled downward, and through it all, are the people who show great resilience. Similar to my home country, I see people turning to entrepreneurship or “social innovation ” as a means to survive. A fellowship with the Social Innovation Lab at Johns Hopkins University positioned me to further explore social entrepreneurship and eventually turn my interest into my graduate thesis project at Maryland Institute College of Art (MICA).

This is an excerpt from the documentation of my journey, as I try to understand social entrepreneurship in the US and Baltimore. But more importantly, it is a testimony to the power of social design to bring the voices of the people to the forefront - something that’s easy to ignore in today’s broken landscape.

Below is a video presentation made at the Social Design Exchange 2017 at MICA and linked here is the entire Publication.


The Problem

To start at the very beginning, it is important to acknowledge how this country’s history and past practices have economically disenfranchised people of color. America’s great racial wealth divide has kept communities of color in poverty with unequal access to education, employment, home ownership, income and savings.

So what happens when families on modest incomes need to pay for food, healthcare, childcare and other basic needs while making sure they have a roof over their head?

As the unemployment rate in 2010 rose, many Americans turned to self-employment to earn a living. Between 2007 and 2012, business ownership rates grew by 3%, which represents an increase of over two million firms owned by people of color.

But there are a number of factors that limit access to the resources these entrepreneurs need to grow, thereby inhibiting their potential to be successful and sustainable. As people of color soon become the majority in the US, it is essential that we understand and address the problem.

A study reported that 45% of social entrepreneurs in their sample of 388 across in the US said financial capital or funding was the biggest challenge faced. To put things into context, I looked for data on investments made in social enterprise in the US, but I couldn’t find a holistic study that captured a specific trend.

Instead I’ve pieced together some statistics to paint a picture of a phenomenon that exists:

  • A study by CB Insights in 2010, found that 98% of all venture investments went to companies led by male executives. In addition, the racial breakdown for those investments were - 83% Caucasian or White, 12% Asian and less than 1% African-American or Black.
  • An Emory University study said that minority led companies were 35% less likely to receive venture funding.
  • In 2013, less than 7% of grant dollars went to racial minorities even though these individuals make up 40% of the US population. 
  • An Echoing Green internal report shows that it’s Black applicants consistently report raising less funds than White applicants. Similarly, women applicants report raising signi cantly less than their male counterparts. This is important to note when the gender gap amongst social entrepreneurs in the US is closing in, with men at 55% and women at 45%.


This isn’t surprising if 76% of venture capitalists are white men, and foundation board members are 85% White, 59% Men with only 6% between the ages 30-39.

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As I frame the problem in the context of Baltimore, this excerpt from a recent CFED report on the Racial Divide in Baltimore captures the city’s condition well -

“Though Baltimore bills itself as a city of the future, the economic plight of many of its residents suggest a struggle to break free of the past. Indeed, historical policies designed to “quarantine blacks,” have contributed to a city in which one’s race is a dominant determinant of one’s overall life outcomes.”

Much of Baltimore’s 63% Black population still remain isolated. The national inequalities are reflected in Baltimore’s Black population and sometimes they fare even worse. The percentage of people with a Bachelor’s degree is 3.2 times higher for Whites than for Blacks, which against the rate of unemployment for workers of color being three times that of White workers, is not surprising. Moreover, the incarceration rate for 2014 show that almost 85% of those incarcerated were African-American.

These statistics, when added up, push people of color to turn to entrepreneurship as a means to survive. A Baltimore entrepreneur I spoke with about entrepreneurship said, “It’s the only way a Black person can ever find freedom.”

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In addition to gathering demographic data through a survey (represented on left), I have been able to have in- depth conversations with some of Baltimore’s entrepreneurs through one-on-one interviews. I wanted to learn what motivates people to become social entrepreneurs, what makes them successful and how do they go about achieving their vision for a better Baltimore. Through the conversations and discussions a few prominent and recurring themes began to emerge.

Working in Silos: The most common theme was how Baltimore is structured in a way that everyone works in silos. There is great work happening, yet nobody hears about it. Everyone thinks they’re doing something different but they’re not. 

“Being siloed is a double- edged sword because then you’re also allowed to get away with a lot of things in this city. That’s why some of the policies are the way they are and politicians behave the way they do.”


Building relationships and making connections: Baltimore is a big small town, and your success is dependent on who you know. But it’s not only who you know, it’s also how well do they know you. Do they like you? Do they trust you? Or has someone they trust vouched for you?

“These cliques- you go and introduce yourself like listen I belong here so let’s take the time to get to know each other. They immediately reject you because you don’t look like them. As an outlier, when you do make it happen, then it’s oh come on in!”


Lacking open access to infrastructural resources: With respect to infrastructure and supportive spaces entrepreneurs of color feel like they aren’t representative of the community, which sends a message that it isn’t meant for them.

“ It’s like you went and created a space for the community, but you’ve created your own community within it. And then you push us out."


Assimilating within traditional power structures: A lot of entrepreneurs voiced how “assimilating” was a huge part of being successful. If you are in a certain place, you’re expected to be, look and behave in a way that isn’t “Black.”

“I’m a Black, gay woman. Basically everything that America hates."


I realized what I was hearing needed to be shared and told to a much wider audience, particularly those with money and power. Which is why I have been lucky to partner with Rodney Foxworth and the team at Invested Impact. In one of our conversations, Rodney mentions how investors come to him saying, “Just give us a list.” They mean a list of Black entrepreneurs to invest in. I want to be able to address that need without reducing people to a list.

I decided the best way to share what I learned and address the problem was to develop a set of personas. Personas are symbolic archetypes that are distilled from actual design research. Each persona represents an aggregate of characteristic behaviors and experiences of many individuals.

These personas can be a valuable tool for investors and philanthropists and others, who may or may not have daily interactions with actual entrepreneurs, in order to understand the differences in the ways that Baltimore’s entrepreneurs respond, what their needs and challenges are, and how to best support them by meeting them where they are.

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The Report

We're working on a comprehensive report for philanthropists and social change investors that brings together quantitative data and qualitative insights along with opportunities for change. The report aims to bring the voices of the people to the forefront, highlight how past practices have prevented funds from reaching entrepreneurs of color and work towards shifting behaviors to make funding and support more accessible to low wealth networked communities.

We can build capacity and prepare grassroots entrepreneurs to be investment-ready. But if the funder’s mindset and investment practices don’t shift to become more open and responsive, what are we really preparing them for?

The report aims to create more awareness about who Baltimore’s entrepreneurs are, the ways in which they respond, and what their challenges and perceptions are. It is a tool for those with money and power to use in order to make decisions from an informed place.

The report is expected to be published in June 2017.

I imagine an open, supportive and responsive ecosystem for social entrepreneurship. However, with a city suffering from a number of daunting problems, it is very easy to say it’s too difficult to make it happen here. For Baltimore to truly live up to it’s potential, it must include as it grows.

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