Courtesy of Cornell University

Black entrepreneurs on campus travel to Silicon Valley.

March 6, 2020

Black Entrepreneurs in Training Trailblaze Their Way from Ithaca to Silicon Valley

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What started off as a GroupMe called “Entrepreneurship for the Culture” soon evolved into a cohort of dozens of students committed to promoting black students’ entrepreneurship on campus.

“[BET] evolved from very small scale entrepreneurship, almost like hustling in a sense,” said Ansu Bangura ’20, co-founder of the organization. “We went from ‘let’s do this group chat where we come together to funnel resources’ to a much bigger organization.”

Aiming to see an increase in the number of black students interested in pursuing business, the group was founded by students Jehron Petty ’20, Julia Reeves ’20 and Bangura last year after reaching out to collaborate with Women Entrepreneurs of Cornell.

Petty recalled attending a talk on campus given by Marlon Nichols, founding managing partner of MaC Venture Capital, where he noted that at an event of 40 attendees, he was the only black undergraduate student in the room.

“When you have a black entrepreneur come to campus, that’s a no-brainer to me for you to be here, get inspired and learn from that,” Petty said. “That kind of fueled me a little bit more in making sure that this community would get to see that.”

According to its website, BET is dedicated to “inspiring, informing and initiating the next wave of black student entrepreneurs.”

Throughout the year, various groups of students known as cohorts participate in three phases of programs. In the “inspire” phase, members are shown the basics of what black entrepreneurship is; in the “inform” phase, members are educated through events and presentations, and, finally, in the “initiate” phase, members begin developing a prototype for a potential product.

“We are trying to disrupt the entrepreneurship space by creating the soft landing where black entrepreneurs can blossom and bloom into the brilliant entrepreneurs we always knew that they were,” Bangura said.

In pursuit of fostering a culture of business, BET has sent its participants to a variety of startup conferences, including a global meeting of Silicon Valley’s Startup Grind, one of the nation’s largest entrepreneurship communities.

“One of the goals [of the trip] was to not only create this community of people that looked like them, but also expose the BET members to the broader entrepreneur system outside of Cornell because ‘you can’t be what you can’t see,’” said Andrea Ippolito, Engineering Management lecturer and BET faculty advisor.

While there, members attended informational workshops, networking events and community-based conferences where they interacted with fellow innovators.

“A lot of people got to make those Silicon Valley connections and see what entrepreneurship looks like on the other side,” Bangura said. “Where we’re starting is just the tip of the iceberg and we got to speak to people who’ve done it and are five or six years ahead of where we are now.”

On April 1, BET plans to launch a crowdfunding campaign that will run throughout the month with the hopes of raising $10,000 to help further support outreach events and conference attendance.

“I definitely want to encourage everybody, whether they are black or not, to explore entrepreneurship…anybody can be a founder and start their own company,” Petty said. “It’s not just for the people who are looking to make a dollar, but for people who want to solve problems.”