How to Lift Up Diverse Entrepreneurs
From left to right: TCB editor-in-chief Allison Kaplan, TurnSignl co-founder and CFO Andre Creighton, Neighborhood Development Center president and CEO Renay Dossman, and Junita’s Jar Founder Junita Flowers

How to Lift Up Diverse Entrepreneurs

After 2020’s parade of corporate pledges to the Black community, where do we stand today? Three local business and community leaders weighed in at a TCB event.

In the wake of George Floyd’s murder at the hands of a Minneapolis police officer in 2020, businesses and nonprofits alike made plenty of promises to right historical wrongs. Many pledged to support Black entrepreneurs in the form of dollars, time, and talent. Nearly three years later, have we actually made meaningful progress?

On March 29, TCB convened a panel of three business and community leaders to find out. Renay Dossman, president and CEO of the St. Paul-based nonprofit Neighborhood Development Center, said she was grateful for the influx of support in the wake of Floyd’s murder, but she said that it’s already begun to wane.

“I feel like it’s retreating. I feel like we’re almost going back,” Dossman told attendees at TCB’s Diversity in Entrepreneurship event at the Minneapolis Club on Wednesday. “There were a lot of people who made commitments to our community—especially the Black community—that we have not seen materialize. … I’m fighting hard so people don’t go backwards because we do need to go forward in a different way.”

The Neighborhood Development Center’s goal has been to empower underrepresented entrepreneurs. For Dossman, entrepreneurship is the key to establishing generational wealth and breaking cycles of poverty.

Junita Flowers, founder of Junita’s Jar cookie company, suggested that the fate of diverse entrepreneurs still boils down to access. A lack of access to, say, investors and other influential business leaders, is still limiting opportunities for some entrepreneurs of color. “I can work hard, all day long” Flowers said, “but it’s still access at the end of the day.”

That means that BIPOC entrepreneurs still face a bit of an uphill battle in many respects. “There’s always that barrier you’re trying to fight to get over,” said Andre Creighton, co-founder and CFO of Minneapolis-based legal advice app TurnSignl. “I don’t have friends I can call and say, ‘Hey, let me get $3 million for this great idea I have.’ We have to fight a little bit harder. What it comes down to is access.”

To that end, what are a few concrete steps that businesses and business leaders can take? Very simply: Broaden access. Creighton put it this way: “If I’m looking for a job, I don’t expect you to give me the interview, but at least put me in a position to submit my resume to the person, and let me do the work to be able to fulfill what the need is.”

And when it comes to funding, perhaps the onus is still on venture capital firms and other investors. Many VCs operate under stringent parameters that can dissuade underrepresented business owners, Creighton noted. “Maybe some VCs have to change their guidelines so some of these entrepreneurs fit into them,” he said.

Meanwhile, Flowers hammered home the difficulties of running a business as a solopreneur. She relayed an anecdote of a co-manufacturer dropping her business five days before her product was slated to launch in Target stores. That created big logistical issues for her business. “For five weeks, I worked seven days a week,” Flowers said. “It is a struggle as we’re scaling. The opportunities get larger, but we can’t just step into them. It’s a whole process.”

Still, the hard work paid off, and she was able to get her product shelf-ready in time for the launch.

“We’re celebrating it, but the scars are still there,” Flowers told attendees. “It makes you really gun-shy when we have these other opportunities.”

There are still other scars from the past few years. Scars that continue to weigh down the community. Dossman said she still carries with her the weight of Floyd’s murder back in 2020. “This is the first time I’m able to talk about it without breaking down,” she said. It’s still important to give entrepreneurs space to talk through those scars, she added. As Dossman sees it, it’s a matter of being mindful of the “whole entrepreneur.”

In the end, panelists agreed that there’s still much more work to be done to level the playing field for entrepreneurs of all backgrounds. Dossman is ready for the challenge.

“We co-own Midtown Global Market, and I always think about that market being surrounded by people protecting it and holding it up,” she said. “And that’s the way I feel about our entrepreneurs—that we surround them and hold them up.”

To learn more about these panelists, take a look at these three episodes of TCB’s By All Means podcast: