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  • Shelly Bell

Resisting The Urge to Be Average in All The Arenas

I have lived many lives. I have been a computer scientist, a teacher, a patent examiner, a community organizer, an author, and a poet. Six years ago, I decided to build a teepee in my living room and rent it out on AirBnb. People told me I was crazy, but I put an ad up and the response was overwhelming. Ultimately, I decided I didn’t want to open my home up to strangers, but I had had my first taste of entrepreneurship and I never looked back.


Today, I am the founder and CEO of Black Girl Ventures, an organization that provides Black and Brown woman-identifying founders with access to community, capital, and capacity building in order to meet milestones that lead to economic advancement through entrepreneurship. Within a year - during a pandemic no less - our small nonprofit has grown into the largest entrepreneurial ecosystem on the East coast.

Throughout my life, the simple philosophy that has guided me is: Resist Being Average. It is a discipline; a muscle that you build over time. It’s what allowed me to defy the odds as a single mother of three to build an ecosystem that represents $10 million in revenue and 3,000 jobs.



Know Your Why

We make an estimated 35,000 choices per day. Who we become is the direct result of the everyday choices we make. So what are you going to commit to? Pursuing your passion is not enough. Research by Harvard Business School professor Jon Jachimowicz suggests most of us don’t know how to pursue our passion, which is not fixed, but can change over time. Instead, knowing your purpose - that is, your reason for existing and the unique value you provide - will allow you to overcome challenges and stay grounded in your vision and values.


Living with purpose will help you defeat your biggest enemy: the inner critic. Imposter syndrome will tell you that you don’t know enough, that you don’t belong where you are, that you don’t deserve the accolades or the opportunities that come your way. Don’t listen to your inner critic. Believe in yourself and trust the work you’ve put in. If you don’t, someone else will always be ready to tell you who they think you are or should be.


Several years ago, when I started my print shop, I printed 2,000 “Made By a Black Woman” t-shirts by hand in a lab because a good friend of mine had hyped me up and told me I would sell them all at an upcoming event. We did not sell out at the event; we just broke even. In fact, I still have some of those shirts from that batch. I used to keep a table and some shirts in my trunk and I would pop up anywhere and say “I’m selling these shirts.”


Later, when I was launching BGV, my ex-fiance discouraged me constantly, telling me I would never make it. This was a man who had never been a business owner. He did not want me to get into business. He wanted me to choose between being an entrepreneur and being a wife, as if I couldn’t exist in both worlds at the same time. Thankfully, I did not listen. I stayed true to myself and it changed the trajectory of my life. The lesson I learned from these experiences was to never take advice from someone who does not know anything about business.


People often ask me “how are you so fearless?” and I tell them “I am not fearless, I am fear-facing.” I believe fear is like walking into a dark room. It’s scary, it’s unknown, but you run for the light switch. You know there is a light switch there somewhere, you just have to find it. It’s about maintaining that belief in yourself, no matter what the outer circumstances are. For entrepreneurs, fear is a natural state of being. 75% of ventures fail within 10 years. If you focus on fear, you will steer your life toward what you fear. So it’s all about focus, because what you focus on is what you will feel.


Keep your purpose in mind and use fear to motivate you, to learn and come up with better, more innovative ideas. I always knew I wanted to support Black and Brown women. When I started my first venture, my mom invested in me. She gave me $5,000 and I hit the ground running. I took my tax money, and I flipped that into more money. I bought the machines to open my custom apparel and merchandise print shop, MsPrintUSA, which eventually gained clients like Amazon and Google. With the funds I made from that, I launched Made By a Black Woman, a marketplace offering clothing, accessories, and home decor created and curated by women of color. After that, I launched BGV.


In today’s rapidly evolving world, grounding yourself in your vision and values is the best way to navigate uncertainty. Knowing your purpose will help you focus on the impact you want to have. While you will have to adapt to face the inevitable challenges that arise when you’re an entrepreneur, when you trust yourself and your vision, you will take action toward goals that are aligned with what matters deeply to you.

Four years ago, I gathered 30 women in a basement in Southeast DC. I modeled the event on the traditional African-American rent parties from the early 1900s in Harlem, where Black folks would have festive gatherings to raise money to pay rent. I wanted to draw on the creative energy and rich oral tradition of our community, so we included call and response, poetry, music and storytelling. I asked the audience to vote with their dollars after listening to a series of pitches. We collected money in jars. We just had a good time. That was how Black Girl Ventures and our signature crowdfunded pitch competition were born. For that first event, we didn’t even have a mechanism of transferring money to the winners. But it was a success, and we grew from there.


Shortly after, the news came out about Black women receiving less than 1% of venture capital funding, despite the number of Black women founders growing at a rate that was six times higher than the national average. That’s when I knew I was onto something.


Your purpose is what you do in service of your vision. LEGO is the world’s largest toy company, but it doesn’t just sell toys. The company is committed to “the development of children’s creativity through play and learning.” We don’t just host crowdfunded pitch competitions; BGV is reimagining the way small businesses access social and financial capital. We are the friends and family round they need before even approaching a VC. BGV’s purpose is to direct flows of capital to Black and Brown women founders to lay the foundation for generational wealth.


When you are clear about your purpose, you are prepared to pivot and innovate to meet the needs of the community you serve. When the pandemic hit last March, BGV was ready to adapt. We immediately brought our crowdfunded pitch competitions online. SheRaise, the tech platform I had built, allowed for increased viewership and donations. We also launched our online community, BGV Connect, because we know our audience. Facing exclusionary policies and institutionalized racism in areas ranging from employment to home ownership, access to credit and loans to health insurance, many Black women founders struggle just to keep their heads above the water. 41% of Black businesses were forced to close their doors due to the pandemic. We began hosting weekly virtual coworking sessions because we knew our community needed a safe space to gather, have inspiring conversations, dig deep, and deal with challenges together.


Sticking to your values provides a compass during times of uncertainty. When George Floyd was murdered by the police, there was a lot of racial tension. Our funding was winding down and I was worried about my ability to raise more in such a tense climate. A white woman, an ecosystem builder who has a tech platform for women entrepreneurs, told me I should officially change the name of Black Girl Ventures to just BGV. She thought Black Girl Ventures was too loud and that the B should be ambiguous, for Black or Brown. I considered what she said and then I thought “Why would I do that? Who am I erasing?”. I stuck with the name Black Girl Ventures, and since then, we’ve received millions of dollars in donations and partnered with some of the world’s leading businesses.


We’ve also had instances of having to turn down partnerships due to a lack of alignment. Last year, a large social media network approached us and wanted to launch a partnership which would have brought significant resources to BGV and our community. But at the end of 2020, there was a slew of allegations about discriminatory practices against women and POC at the company. I made the decision to turn them down due to their poor business practices, because their reality did not align with our values of diversity, equity and inclusion. Another Fortune 500 company wanted to give us funding, but wanted the money to be used to activate their employees. I decided that would not be the most efficient allocation of resources. We need funding to go toward programs for our community.



Be a cultural translator


The second topic I want to explore is having a fundamental understanding of cultural nuance. Culture shapes economic outcomes through social capital. Whether you’re building a team, expanding into different geographical regions or speaking with a prospective client, understanding how your worldview may differ from others’ is critical. Being a cultural translator - or finding someone who is - is one of the most important business lessons to learn when interacting with different communities.

What is your definition of diversity? When building my team at BGV, I initially recruited all Black and Brown women, because I wanted my team to reflect the people we were serving. A big part of what we do at Black Girl Ventures is validating Black and Brown women founders’ identity as entrepreneurs, telling them “you can do this and we’re going to do everything we can to help you.” So having a team that speaks their language and understands their lived experiences was key. Later I brought on team members from different backgrounds so as not to be exclusionary. In venture capital, it is largely white men investing 98% of VC funding into businesses led by other white men. We didn’t want to replicate silos that are counterproductive to inclusive economic development.


Diversity can take many forms. Rather than focusing on cultural diversity internally, we prioritized cognitive diversity and sought out creatives with high emotional intelligence who didn’t necessarily have traditional professional backgrounds. Having different perspectives and ways of processing information forces us to regularly disrupt our own way of doing things. Research has shown that cognitive diversity helps teams resolve problems faster.


Building across different ecosystems means working with different communities. Once I had a successful business model, I started to travel across the country, finding passionate Black and Brown women champions on the ground to lead the pitch competitions in their cities. The way they do things in Birmingham is not the same way they do things in Houston, and the way they do things in Philly is not the way they do things in Miami. So first I had to find local entrepreneurs and business leaders who could help me build momentum and who had access to a community we could count on for participation, turnout, funding and support. Only after taking those steps would I start to put down roots and build the business.


One year, I met a woman who said “Come to Baltimore!”. We connected and put together an awesome event. The next year, she wasn’t available and without her, the turnout in Baltimore was low - it didn’t have the same energy. I learned that establishing credibility locally through on the ground champions was my best route to sustainable impact. Especially if you are not from the area, you need to have the trust of the community you are working to serve. Otherwise, it can feel like you’re just parachuting in without the intention to create lasting change and strengthen the local ecosystem.


Finding champions on the ground who were already plugged into the local startup scene was a critical move. These Change Agents would then learn how to hold the ladder for others and/or how to find the person they need to hold the ladder toward moving to the next level of success. Our Change Agent program evolved into the BGV Fellowship, a nine month paid leadership development program to nurture business leaders and ecosystem builders in entrepreneurial hubs across the US. With the support of our partners, we are building a movement of Black and Brown women who are shaping the future of business through their local ecosystems.


Our emphasis on community-building is rooted in a longstanding African-American management philosophy of businesses leaving a positive impact on the social and economic landscape. In the early 1900s, at a time where racial discrimination was rampant, beauty industry pioneer Annie Turnbo-Malone built a multinational cosmetic empire, creating almost 75,000 jobs primarily for Black and Brown women and supporting employees, customers and local communities.


We often hear about the nuances of doing business internationally, but people are not generally aware that their language and behaviors are interpreted differently by communities within their own country or region. In the U.S., saying yes usually signifies agreement, while in some Eastern cultures, it means that you have understood the message, not necessarily that you agree with it. I encountered a similar disparity in cultural cues while learning to navigate the world of philanthropy. White donors would often come up to me and ask “how can I be helpful?”. That was their way of politely saying “ask me for money.” I wasn’t used to this coded way of speaking. In Black culture, people say what they mean. If someone wanted to support your work, they would say it plain and offer it to you. Understanding different cultural norms and forms of communication is crucial to navigate different communities.


We also hear countless stories of founders getting turned down by investors who did not understand the problem they were trying to solve because they had an entirely different frame of reference. They did not see the market opportunity because they were used to making deals with people who look like them. Gaining insight into your counterpart’s culture should be part of your due diligence. Understanding cultural nuance opens the door to better communication and an increase in opportunities.



Play to win


Working in business is a team sport and being an entrepreneur is like being an elite athlete: you have to play to win. It extends beyond the court. It’s about putting it all on the line to accomplish your goals. Giving the best of yourself always pays off. You become a magnet for people who share and can amplify your vision to drive social change. And when you understand the rules of the game, you can start changing the game.


At each stage of my journey as an entrepreneur, I was able to level up because of relationships I had invested in. Social capital is as important as getting the funding. Your connections can open doors for you that you never would have thought possible. This is especially important for Black and Brown founders, who are often starting from scratch in terms of the professional networks that you need to access funding as well as for recruiting and mentorship. Even if you succeed in raising funds, if you don’t have the team or network around you to help you manage it or give you feedback on how to grow and scale, you can only get to a certain point.

Here’s an example of social capital in action: I was able to connect with Google through someone I met at a women’s group. That contact became a good friend and ally, and helped connect me with other people and opportunities. At Google, other people became strong supporters and champions of my work with BGV. Google Cloud for Startups ended up sponsoring us and we were able to scale across the country and hire videographers and photographers in eight cities to help tell our story. With this increased visibility, Black Girl Ventures received a $450,000 grant to launch chapters in five cities.

Today, Black Girl Ventures has partnerships with some of the biggest corporations in the world, including Nike, Visa, Paypal and more. Many of these relationships started organically. We were able to connect on a human level because we created a system that allows people to work with each other on a challenge that they can see. One of our upcoming initiatives with Nike is to create murals across three cities celebrating the contributions of Black and Brown women business leaders. Art is a powerful tool to shift narratives and drive social change. All of our partners share our commitment to level the playing field for Black and Brown women founders, and we are finding creative ways to tackle inequality together.


It’s time to rewrite the rules. Conducting business as usual is no longer an option. We don’t need to prove that inequities exist; the time has come to change the whole system. That means stepping away from the traditional old boys’ club model and bringing visibility to the creative, innovative work being done in our community. It means elevating the untold stories of Black and Brown women in business who have been quietly paving the way to a more inclusive economy and a more equitable society for all of us. It means working smarter, not harder.


In Black culture, it is often said that you have to work twice as hard, and in entrepreneurship, grind culture is celebrated even as it takes a toll on our mental health and psychological well-being. But it doesn’t have to be that way. According to the World Health Organization, depression and anxiety costs the global economy US$ 1 trillion per year in lost productivity. Prioritizing our health on all levels makes for a happier and more productive workforce. At BGV, we start every meeting with a check in to see how everybody is feeling. We have a therapist-in-residence who hosts monthly wellness circles for our community. We offer flexible PTO and encourage the team to take mental health days when needed. When we fill our cups first, we are better equipped to provide capital, capacity and connections to our community.


We often speak of the “BGV Universe” because we are bringing to life a new vision of the world, one that is founded on equity, diversity and inclusion. Black and Brown ecosystems like Black Girl Ventures are not only poised to be a source of dealflow, but also a resource for products and services, corporate gifts, content creation and marketing. Companies can draw on our networks to find interns, fill board seats and ensure supply chain diversity. Black and Brown women founders span generations and skill sets.



I often think about my legacy. What do I want to be remembered for? What do I want to leave behind? I’m a mother of three so I think about the example I am setting for my children. My youngest is 6 years old and all she will have ever known is entrepreneurship, me running multiple businesses, leading teams and driving social change through what I am building. I think about how I am a role model for her and how everything I do is expanding her field of possibility.


Know your purpose, understand cultural nuance and play to win. These are the key lessons I have learned as an entrepreneur and ecosystem builder. At the core is optimizing the relationship you have with yourself and others. When you’re clear about your mission and know how to navigate between different cultures, you can change the rules of the game. Each and everyone of you has the potential to be exceptional. I invite you to join me in the fight to resist being average and to build a more equitable and inclusive world. Thank you.


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