Members of the 2020 Multicultural Innovation Lab reflect on the heightened awareness of racial inequality and how that has affected them.
The racial justice movement and social protests following the killings of Ahmaud Arbery, George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Rayshard Brooks, among others, has galvanized communities across the U.S., sparking a national conversation about racial inequality, not only with regards to law enforcement, but in all aspects of society, including corporate America.
For multicultural entrepreneurs, who have long experienced a funding gap, this painful moment has brought on a reckoning, as venture capitalists begin to examine more closely their own unconscious bias in backing startups, while corporations look at new, better and more equitable ways to serve their employees and clients.
Several members of our current, fourth cohort of the Multicultural Innovation Lab have felt the impact of this paradigm shift on their growing businesses. As Kevin Dedner, founder and CEO of Henry Health—a platform providing culturally sensitive, evidence-based teletherapy for people of color—puts it, “We’re seeing movement in a way that we’ve not seen before with investors. Investors are willing to really listen, to sit in the moment and offer an empathetic ear.”
For Dedner, it feels as if the world has finally caught up to him. An Arkansas native who worked in public health for many years, tackling such issues as HIV-AIDS and childhood obesity, he saw firsthand how marginalized communities disproportionately bear the brunt of physical and mental illness and disease, as well as the lack of access to treatment.
But it wasn’t until he suffered “mental exhaustion” while working as a consultant that Dedner faced the challenge of finding a therapist who understood his lived experience as a Black man—a search that took three tries before he found the right match. When a friend asked if he’d ever thought of starting a digital healthcare business, something clicked. In 2018, he partnered with his former therapist to launch Henry Health, named after the Black folk icon John Henry.
Not surprisingly, both the pandemic, which has hit communities of color hard, and the Black Lives Matter protests have further intensified interest from both potential clients and investors. “People of color were having this experience in this country that caused them a level of stress and anxiety that was unique. That argument has been validated through research over the years, but as a company, we struggled to get people to hear that before this moment,” says Dedner. “This is not an affirmation that we celebrate, but we have doubled down and gotten more aggressive about service delivery and we’ve seen tremendous growth.”
Others have also noted the difference. Fellow cohort member, Erica Plybeah, founder and CEO of MedHaul, which offers healthcare providers an easier way to book non-emergency transportation for patients with special needs, says that the heightened awareness of racial inequality has led to more interest from well-known investors, the sort her startup hadn’t attracted in the past. Yet, she remains cautious. It may be too early to tell if that sort of outreach proves beneficial, she says, adding: “Raising money is a much longer journey than a week or two, at least for most Black entrepreneurs.”
Plybeah has also received more outreach from potential mentors. A list of names that grew organically and was circulated among Black founders and professionals recently delivered in a crucial way. “There were some big-name startups on the list willing to devote time answering questions about everything from products to marketing, and I found that tremendously helpful,” says Plybeah. She points out that she doesn’t think of herself as an entrepreneur per se. Rather, she is someone who had a good idea, based on her professional background launching clinical software for healthcare organizations and her personal experience of growing up in Greenwood, Mississippi, where her family struggled get her grandmother, a diabetic and double-leg amputee, to her many appointments.
Plybeah launched her business in 2018, but the business model has resonated recently, as many immunocompromised and other at-risk patients are told to avoid public transportation, but still need to make critical medical appointments. Plybeah feels more confident talking about the situation and has encountered more receptive investors. “People are better able to understand, not only that transportation is a social determinant of health, but also the lack of appropriate housing and access to physicians, especially to those who really listen to African-American patients—and how all of that contributes to poor health outcomes.”
As books like White Fragility soar to the top of bestseller lists, Elise Smith, cofounder and CEO of Praxis Labs, finds herself uniquely positioned to help employers address the chronic issue of racial bias and microaggression in the workplace. Her software-as-a-service company, which formed in 2019, develops virtual-reality-based diversity-and-inclusion experiential learning modules that allow employees opportunities to build empathy and perspective.
“Topics of diversity and inclusion are extremely sensitive,” Smith says. “No one wants to say the wrong thing or be seen in negative light. We’ve created individual learning experiences that give participants a safe space to practice being an inclusive leader- to get things wrong and to try again.”
For many, empathy comes from experience or witnessing of events. It’s potentially why so many were moved by bystander videos of police brutality against African Americans. The value of experience, empathy and perspective taking isn’t lost on Smith. “Research has proven that immersive learning experiences can be a tool for empathy and perspective taking,” says Smith, whose educational technology bona fides include building the first generation of IBM’s Watson for Education products, and measuring portfolio impact at a philanthropic venture fund that focused on advancing diversity and inclusion in education.
Recent months have brought Praxis Labs a lot more inquiries, Smith says. “We’ve definitely seen an increased appetite from many organizations to continue to learn on these topics. There’s been significant interest in partnering with us; even more so than what we were finding before this moment in time.”
All three Black entrepreneurs see potential in this moment for the country as a whole. Says Dedner, “I am incredibly optimistic about what the future looks like. I think that this is a window through which we can reimagine not only what mental healthcare looks like, but also how we interact with each other on a simple human level.”