When Nicole Scott was 17 years old, she was already designing her own clothes and getting recognition for them. At a show she fully planned and designed for at the Kentucky Center for the Arts in Louisville, unfamiliar faces looked up at her, a sign she was getting real exposure.
Now, she has a chance to inspire other young Black women. At 19, she is a member of the first cohort of the Russell Technology Business Incubator, which is itself a first: the first incubator in Louisville to focus on minority entrepreneurs.
The city where Scott lives is in the midst of two huge trends at once. Like many mid-sized cities, its downtown saw a resurgence in recent years. The city estimates about $3 billion worth of projects, including a huge Amazon facility, are planned for the next two years, according to a local construction accelerator. Louisville has always been an important trading hub at the edge of the East Coast mountains, including as a part of America’s system of chattel slavery.
At the same time, the city is in the midst of a huge reckoning about inequality and race relations, and is the focus of a wave of philanthropic funding. This is the place where 26-year-old Breonna Taylor was killed by police last spring. Across the city and from the nation, there’s a widespread effort to support Black and brown entrepreneurs and begin to redevelop west Louisville, whose residents are predominantly minorities.
Now, Black people are taking leadership roles in unprecedented numbers, say members of the community — and they are also stepping up to make sure another generation will follow them.
“The fact is that I’ve always been mad,” said Dave Christopher, the founder of a well-known nonprofit, AMPED. The protests and riots after Taylor’s death helped propel him to start the Incubator where Scott is working this year. “I’ve always been upset. I’ve always been bothered about this for years, but in a sense, I never really had permission to say it. Because it’s daunting. It’s exhausting to be mad every day, so you just don’t do it. You like okay, no, move on. It’s what it is. Deal with it, be mad occasionally at home, in your house, in your room.”
Taylor’s death, against the backdrop of the pandemic, opened a window of change. “It took COVID-19 for us to be forced to sit at home, and listen and watch and see, a full display of all of the inequities that existed, like, forever,” Christopher said.
White people shouldn’t be reaching out to people of color because they feel guilty for having privilege or because they are white, Christopher said. Though, realizing the advantage of being white is essential. “The question is, how will you use it, once you realize that it is a benefit?” he said.
Not everyone believes the changes are real or lasting. Taylor Ryan, another Black leader in Louisville, said the conversations are surface level. “This is all bullshit,” Ryan said. “This is all fake.”
A New Kind of Conversation
In early April, following Breonna Taylor’s death, Christopher received a phone call from his white friend, Eric Burnette, a senior policy advisor at Louisville Forward, the city’s economic development arm, who asked if he was okay. Christopher was tired of the question, and shut his friend down.
Burnette asked him a different question: “Is there anything I do to help?” Christopher’s answer was the beginning of the Russell Technology Business Incubator. Convinced after another conversation that his friend truly wanted to help, Christopher spent the next few days writing up an eight-page, detailed proposal, down to where the copier would go, he said. He explained that he wanted the plan to be in full and that his friend’s response should be straight forward. “I wasn’t in the mood to go back and forth,” he said.
Then they both started sharing it. Burnette had sent the proposal to the Rockefeller Foundation and it turns out they were interested. The foundation granted the incubator $500,000. Slowly, Christopher started to get more calls and grants. As of the beginning of February, he’s raised about $3 million, he said.
Scott, whose brand is called Nicole Scott Inc., is among 31 entrepreneurs in the first cohort of the year-long incubator, which is completely free to its users. The cohort started in January and officially opens Feb. 16. If it works, Christopher said, he may expand the model to other cities.
Other Black leaders in Louisville felt a similar calling to Christopher’s to do something about the barriers. At the start of the pandemic, Louisville entrepreneur Tawana Bain was meeting with a group of black business leaders at her restaurant to discuss the difficulties the virus has had on their businesses. Someone suggested she apply for a grant from an organization that funds black businesses. It was then she realized that Louisville had no such organization.
Bain already ran a year-round equity program called the Derby Diversity and Business Summit. So, she enveloped that program into a wider organization and founded the Global Economic Diversity Development Initiative, or GEDDI in June 2020 to support black entrepreneurs worldwide. A big portion of the funding so far has come from her own pocket; she’s put in about $250,000, she said, and received another $100,000 from community organizations such as Purchase, New York-based PepsiCo Foundation and Louisville-based Churchill Downs.
Some of its programs include Just Boss Up, a program to “button up” entrepreneur’s businesses. It helps business owners get their paperwork in order, such as getting them registered with the IRS and creating logos; The Black Fashion Exchange, a program designed to raise retail brands and get black entrepreneurs in store fronts through training at her own fashion store, AFM Threads; and The Collective, a two-year project for Black event organizers to create cultural experiences in Louisville.
Ryan, who is skeptical about the depth of the changes in the white community, runs Change Today, Change Tomorrow, which she founded weeks before the onset of the pandemic. The group grew exponentially last year and was able to complete its five-year goals in less than one, she said, raising $850,000 in its first year.
Among other initiatives to support the Black community, the nonprofit runs Pocket Change, a physical storefront in a predominantly white neighborhood that sells items from Black-owned businesses.
In an effort to reveal the reality of white businesses in Louisville, Change Today, Change Tomorrow is starting a secret shoppers program, where white and black members of the organization will go to 100 white-owned businesses in the city and compare their experiences. The program seeks to expose businesses who treat Black customers poorly and encourage them to participate in a training run by the nonprofit to change that.
The racism in the U.S. systems is entangled in each other, Ryan said. It’s everything, she said. Even the highway exit to west Louisville goes around the part of the city before you can actually enter it. The only thing that would fix the system, she said frankly, “is war.”
“We are beyond repair,” Ryan said. “We’re beyond reforming the system. Like, no. There just needs to be a whole new system.”
Barriers Not Everyone Recognizes
Christopher seeks to address the barriers he’s faced as a Black entrepreneur through his incubator. For instance, when starting his businesses — he founded several including an IT firm and a cleaning company–he said he never tried to get a loan, because he didn’t want to face rejection. His credibility as a technology expert has also been questioned because of the color of his skin, he said.
From those experiences, he wants to give the entrepreneurs that walk through his door the knowledge they need to keep their business afloat, the funds they need to do it and creative and connected mentors they can go to for advice.
His incubator has relationships with banks that he hopes will provide the businesses with capital, as well as sources of grant funding. It will equip the cohort with industry recognized certificates through online platform Coursera, which will allow his cohort to take classes taught by professors from schools such as the University of Illinois and the University of Pennsylvania. The incubator’s about 30 employees and volunteers are also training people of color in technology skills to get them into jobs in that field, adding on to the work that AMPED does providing arts and technology education to kids and families.
“We want to build these companies to be these legacy businesses, and then at the end of the year, they’re ready to launch, and really go out and be on their own, but they still have access to the incubator from now until whenever they’ve decided to not come anymore,” Christopher said.
To take it a step further, he set up a fund to help the entrepreneurs in personal emergencies. Personal stuff would happen to him all the time that made him go to his cash register when he was growing his businesses, so he wants to try to alleviate that stress.
Already, Russell is helping businesses such as Dasha Barbour, which is in the first cohort of the incubator. Owners Aaron and Tumeka Barbour opened their southern food restaurant in 2013, an experience Aaron Barbour describes as “an uphill battle.” For the first two years, they served drinks without ice, he said, because they didn’t have an ice machine. They joined the incubator to learn how to grow their business so they can stop coming up short every month. “We’re definitely excited and just kind of on pins and needles of what they’re going to be able to introduce to us and teach us,” Aaron Barbour said.
“What we’ve already learned from them and what they’ve already done, we can see the light at the end of the tunnel,” he said. “We feel like we definitely can make it now if this program continues in the direction that is going.”
The restaurant’s fryer recently broke. So, the Barbours called Christopher, who told them to find a new one at the restaurant depot that will last them the longest and to connect him with the store so he can pay for it.
“I tell people, we treat everybody in our programs like family,” Christopher said. “The goal for us is for you to not need us anymore.”
He raised his incubator on the backdrop of a construction boom in Louisville, which has been occuring in the city since 2017. Several large projects were announced this year, including hundreds of apartments, about $75 million in projects from the Louisville Muhammad Ali International Airport and hundreds of jobs from firms, such as an expansion of Louisville’s largest engineering firm CMTA Inc. and a 1-million-square-foot warehouse planned by Atlana firm Core5 Industrial Partners, according to the Louisville Business Journal. This follows billions of dollars of projects that have already broken ground downtown over the last three years.
Will The Broader Community Change?
Many black leaders in Louisville have seen change since the protests last year. Others point out that changing one or two processes will not fix the system.
Evon Smith, the president and CEO of Louisville nonprofit OneWest, which is working to improve the West End, has noticed a concentrated effort of white people leaning into the issues and concerns, “in some cases to their own detriment,” she said, like stepping down from positions that were intentionally kept from people of color. She’s seen people begin to rethink their decisions about investments and hiring.
“There is an effort in almost every pocket of our city and every industry to rethink what they’ve been doing,” Smith said. “I just hope that it manifests into real material participation and material change that will force our communities the ability to begin to seriously start to heal.”
Additionally, Bain said it’s easier to pitch businesses to investors with the understanding that business needs to be intentional about diversity. “I really am hopeful and seeing a lot of change where I believe that people understand how important it is to make a decision because they are Black, given the disparity,” Bain said.
She said she’s noticed changes in the makeup of boards since the protests. Organizations and policymakers have also started to come to the realization that a few strong Black voices is not enough.
However, it’s important to distinguish the difference between organizations claiming they’re helping versus organizations that actually are, Bain said. Giving money to white-led companies to create racial equity programs doesn’t support Black and minority entrepreneurship as much as investing dollars directly to minority-led companies or incubators themselves, she said.
“If you are taking money from one white institution to address racial equity and giving a bulk of it to another white institution to train people, you’re not really making wealth investments,” she said.
Sometimes, the clothing designer, Nicole Scott, says she feels the weight of her role and the barriers she faces. She is one of the only Black students in her fashion program at the University of Cincinnati. Currently, she’s working with the incubator to develop a website and logos, which will allow her to sell her clothes online.
Scott’s first clothing collection, Unity, was inspired by the civil unrest and injustice the Black community faced in 2020. It “predicts a future with peace, love, equality, kindness and sustainability,” she said.
She designed the collection out of fabric scraps and eco-friendly materials, “highlighting that as humans we’re all born from the same earth and equally share this beautiful planet,” she says. It’s inclusive — for all genders, ages, shapes, sizes, ethnicities, and incomes. It will launch this summer on the website she’s working on at the Russell Business Technology Incubator.