by Lawrence Watkins
As a Morehouse, Berkeley and Harvard-educated man, a world of opportunities has been available to Nathan Bennett Fleming. Instead of starting his career by working on Wall Street or for some prestigious law firm, Fleming and five other partners decided to take a different path.
They are the co-founders of BlackStartup.com, which is a crowdfunding platform for ideas, projects, and causes connected to the African-American community.
Crowdfunding sites, the most famous of which is Kickstarter, allow people to use the power of networks to raise money using online tools for almost any type of project imaginable. Empowering the black community to pool its resources can help African-Americans channel some of its nearly trillion-dollar yearly spending power into sustaining black businesses.
Creating access for black businesses
“Access to resources and capital have been traditional problems to the African-American entrepreneurial community,” Fleming told theGrio. “Crowdfunding is a new technology that democratizes and expands access to capital. We haven’t seen that tool leveraged in a way that creates a significant value proposition in the black community. BlackStartup is an idea to address what we like to call the ‘black entrepreneurial gap,’ which is the fact that black entrepreneurs start businesses at a higher rate than non-minority groups, but we lag behind in owning sustainable operational businesses. Lack of capital is a main reason behind this lag.”
Fleming continued, “BlackStartup also solves the problem of social networks and social interaction. There is a lack of interaction with individuals and institutions that can help fund our businesses. This includes high net worth individuals, angel investors, and venture funds. Furthermore, access to education are causal factors behind the black entrepreneurial gap. On BlackStartup, we will have a knowledge center and will also incorporate a mentorship aspect in the site.”
The potential social impact of solving the undercapitalization of black businesses is what drew Fleming, who has a public policy degree from Harvard and a law degree from University of California, Berkeley, to entrepreneurship.
From politics to social entrepreneurship
“I got into politics to use some of the educational resources that I was provided with to create opportunities for others,” Fleming, who sees himself as a public servant, further explained. He has served as a legislative assistant in D.C. government, and was a legal fellow for a House subcommittee related to capital markets.
Fleming is also an adjunct professor of law at the University of the District of Columbia.
“Politics is a field that can do that, but so is business. I went to Harvard Kennedy School [a graduate school for government], which has a very entrepreneurial bent to it. A number of business leaders are lawyers, and I also trained at Goldman Sachs while in college,” he said.
While this is certainly an unusual path to being a businessman, “It wasn’t that I didn’t view myself as an entrepreneur,” Fleming continued, ”it was about finding the right type of vehicle that had a sustainable social impact and ability for growth. BlackStartup is that type of opportunity for me.”
The BlackStartup team, which rivals the diversity of skills found in the Super Friends, is comprised of six Omega Psi Phi fraternity brothers who met at Morehouse College. Three hold master’s or law degrees from Ivy League institutions while the others have successfully risen in their chosen career paths.
“Morehouse taught us to lead in careers that have a social impact,” Fleming said, adding, ”the [varied capacities] of our team is one of our major competitive advantages.”
Already receiving support from biz community
BlackStartup has already received substantial institutional support — something most entrepreneurial ventures don’t encounter. The company recently won the Yale Entrepreneurship Institute Fellowship, which provides $20,000 in seed capital, excellent mentors, and a 10-week business bootcamp to start-ups. For Fleming, winning the competition “gave us a level of idea validation.”
Yet, he fully understands that these resources are not available to many black entrepreneurs starting businesses. What other hurdles do black entrepreneurs face?
Access to “technological capabilities are something that black businesses lack to follow up on their big ideas,” Fleming stated, a challenge even BlackStartup faces. “We went to liberal arts schools, therefore none of us has the technological know how to grow an Internet venture. If we did, we would be able to come to market with our product more rapidly.”
The long term vision for BlackStartup.com
While the development of BlackStartup is in its early stages, the team has a strong long term vision for the company.
“Ultimately, we are using technology to address the black entrepreneurial gap,” Fleming concluded. “We want to create more viable black economic [opportunities] within our community that [promote] jobs, wealth, and investment. [Life] is not all about your business and making a profit, it is also about social impact.”