Impact Spotlight: Shelly Bell
Washington, D.C. is overflowing with the entrepreneurial spirit - in for-profit businesses, social impact companies, tech startups, and more. The statistics prove it. Business Insider ranks the Washington, D.C. metro area (including Arlington and Alexandria) to be the US city with the highest levels of startup growth, beating out even San Francisco and Boston. The Dell Women Entrepreneur (WE) Cities Index, measuring the top fifty global cities that foster high-potential women entrepreneurs, places Washington, D.C. in its top seven.
For the outsider, it seems almost an oxymoron - the presence of the federal government, full of bureaucracy and lethargic movement, existing alongside energetic citizens who are brave enough to act on their ideas. But for D.C.’s residents, no oxymoron exists - it is a city that at its core desires to create sustainable change, and its citizens are willing to press towards that vision through whatever means is available, including entrepreneurship.
However, the entrepreneurial landscape is not created equal. A successful entrepreneur often requires outside financial capital to launch their businesses, and it is difficult - if not impossible - for minorities to access such funds, particularly if the minorities are women. Black, female-owned businesses may be the fastest growing economic force in the U.S. according to the U.S. Census Bureau, but they achieve this status by combating incredible challenges. Between 2010 and 2015, a meager seven percent of venture-capital went to women-owned businesses. A report out of CB Insights reveals that only 1% of funded startup founders are black (both genders represented). Though clear data does not yet exist for the percentage of minority women founders that receive funding, it can safely be assumed to be a statistically low number.
A significant contributor to this challenge is the pipeline funding minority women founders, or, more precisely, the lack of a pipeline. Venture capital is historically a white male-dominated industry, creating an environment where women and minorities have little social capital to draw upon in order to close funding. The challenge is cyclical - white male venture capitalists invest in white male founders who later become venture capitalists themselves. In a very real sense, disruption is required to provide a pathway to funding and consequential success for black women entrepreneurs.
Enter Shelly Bell, a disruptor at her core. She would be the first to tell you that her life mission is to create entrepreneurial ecosystems that enable women of all types to not just sit at the table, but also to tell their stories. Her current work at Black Girl Ventures, the company that she founded in 2016, empowers black women entrepreneurs through access to capital. However, in order to fully understand the organization and its incredible vision, you have to understand Shelly.
Shelly’s undergraduate degree is in Computer Science, a field she chose due to her systematizing mind. For several years, she worked in the Computer Science industry, but due to unexpected circumstances, she found herself laid off and in need of a new opportunity.
Being unemployed provided Shelly with time to purposefully evaluate her career path. Her long-held desire was to be an entrepreneur, but key individuals in her life pushed back against that path. So, in the spirit of tenacity that she is known for, she cut off the negative relationships and launched her first company, DreamWork Technology, a web development and graphic design business.
Since establishing her first business, Shelly has launched many others, including Woman Writers Rock, MsPrint USA, and Made By A Black Woman, each of which has a decidedly creative component. These business ventures have enabled Shelly to apply her engineering mind to an artistic vision. With each company, she dove a little deeper into rectifying racial injustices through her corner of the marketplace. However, it wasn’t until the incorporation of Black Girl Ventures that she fully integrated her heart for societal transformation with her entrepreneurial lifestyle.
Black Girl Ventures (BGV) originated as a solution to a straightforward problem - women of color were not getting access to capital for their businesses. Shelly’s idea was to bring these women together to discuss entrepreneurship and partnerships while supporting one another through collective economics. In other words, she wanted a crowdfunded pitch competition - where women of color presented their business ideas and attendees voted on which had the highest probability of success. The winner was awarded financial capital to use towards her venture.
It was not by chance that Shelly made Washington, D.C. her company’s home base. BGV’s target market is entrepreneurial women of color, and D.C. has a significant population of both women and people of color. According to the U.S. Census, D.C. residents are 47.7% black (represented more than any other ethnicity) and 52.5% women, and the city had already proved to have a thriving startup scene. In other words, D.C. was fertile ground to be BGV’s birthplace, and Shelly knew it.
Shelly chose to launch BGV in D.C. for a more personal reason also. Since her arrival in the city, she had developed friendships and working relationships with a variety of ambitious women, and had noticed a common theme - venture capital funds for business ideas weren’t flowing in the direction of colored women, or the red tape to access those funds was a deterrent to the idea’s fruition. Shelly felt that her skill set, capacity, and social influence required her to lean into this problem, and lean in she did. Who better to help than the community she was living in?
The outcomes of the organization’s short lifetime thus far is mind-blowing:
Ten pitch competitions have been completed in three different cities (Washington, D.C., New York City, and Baltimore).
Forty-nine women of color have informed over four hundred new customers about their business.
Six women have received up to $2500 in financial capital.
Of the six, one has connected with Amazon to further programming for children engineers, and one has produced a social impact documentary.
Ultimately, Shelly envisions a world where founders are evaluated by their profitability and character, not by the color of their skin or a stereotype, and BGV is making this happen through each pitch competition and entrepreneur awarded funds.
Pomona members can get involved in BGV’s work! Whether that be through introducing a BGV team member to founders and venture capitalists, advising a pitch winner on industry practices, offering your direct skill set (e.g. programming, videography, graphic design, web development), or just attending a competition and voting for the best business plan, your contribution will aid BGV’s overarching goal - to enable women and minorities to create stories of positive transformation where there are none, particularly in the world of entrepreneurship.
Click here to sign up to attend Shelly’s upcoming Washington DC pitch competition on May 19th.
Shelly Bell is an Ecosystem Builder, founder of Black Girl Ventures (BGV), a social enterprise dedicated to creating access to capital for Black/Brown women founders. She is the Google Digital Coach for Washington, D.C. - named Entrepreneur of the Year 2017 by Technically DC and one of the Top 40 New Power Women in Tech by DCA Live (2017). She is among the nation's most sought community organizers, motivational speakers and hosts in the Washington, DC Metro area. With a background is performance poetry, K-12 education and Computer Science she vibrates her passion for community building by helping women entrepreneurs amplify their voices, own their lane and increase profit.
Shelly Bell is an unquestionably gifted speaker with an unflinching desire to remain honest with herself and others which attaches an undeniable movement of social impact to any initiative she focuses on. Her motto is "Resist the Urge to be Average!"