Acquiring funding from venture capitalists — early-stage investors who seed money to young companies in the hopes of making it big — has long been a critical step in thrusting young startups from innovative ideas to viable companies.
Access, however, to this crucial network of capital has historically split harshly along racial and gender lines: Total investments for female startup founders amounted to only 2.2 percent of venture dollars raised in 2018, according to Fortune Magazine; for black entrepreneurs, that number was just above 1 percent.
Established last year by Prof. Andrea Ippolito, civil and environmental engineering, W.E. Cornell aims to encourage female entrepreneurs on campus and is open to women-identifying and non-binary students pursuing a STEM degree. Following closely in its footsteps, Black Entrepreneurs in Training was formed in spring 2018.
While the two organizations cater to different demographics, their end ambition is the same: bring entrepreneurship closer in reach for those who have traditionally struggled to make headway in a homogenous industry with high barriers to entry.
For Jehron Petty ’20, who founded BET alongside Julia Reeves ’20 and Ansumana Bangura ’20, the motivation for starting the program was rooted in an observation that many of his peers lacked interest or knowledge in the opportunities available to them.
“I was talking to some of my friends, and there was just a lack of enthusiasm,” Petty told The Sun. On one hand, there were “people who were aware of all these entrepreneurial resources, but too afraid to get involved,” and on the other, many who “simply didn’t know they existed in the first place.”
“Our goal is to reduce those barriers,” he said.
Ippolito echoed the same objective. “Our goal is to create an onramp where students can get excited, energized, and empowered to pursue a career in entrepreneurship,” she said.
The ultimate end-goal of the programs, however, is not to replace Cornell’s existing entrepreneurial resources — a sprawling web of up to 40 various institutes, platforms and incubators — but to augment them by providing a more accessible pipeline for students reluctant to pursue their ideas.
Both W.E. and BET are centered around giving its members a crash course into the world of formulating business plans, identifying customer needs and pitching to investors. According to both Ippolito and Petty, participants in the programs will have access to speaker series, training sessions and workshops — and will ideally be paired with a mentor who graduated from Cornell.
“We want to give an introduction to entrepreneurship so that we can then direct them [students] to some of these other resources,” he said. “There’s so much money being thrown at these startups … and I really want black students to be a part of that.”
Despite their status as new organizations, that approach has already appeared to reap dividends.
W.E., which last year accepted a cohort of 22 students, has already helped guide a number of Cornell students with fleshed-out business plans to competitive events — such as the Ithaca-based Rev Summer Hardware Accelerator, which leads product teams “through a process for determining if their ideas are commercially desirable, technologically viable, and economically feasible.”
Led by founder Vini Trapthii ’19, InvictusBCI “is making headways in the prosthetic market” by “creating an affordable, easy to use upper limb prosthetic device that will give users a wide range of motion,” Ippolito told The Sun in an email.
Another W.E. participant, Silvia Zhang grad, drew on her longtime passion for the equestrian to create an agile “spine protector” that would make horseback-riding a more comfortable experience for enthusiasts.
BET member Nana Yaw Sarpong ’20 founded S.O.S.A, a group that aims to academically support middle and high school students in low-income communities in Africa. It has raised over $35,000 and currently operates four locations in Ghana.
Applications for both programs close on Sept. 11.