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St. Louis Accelerator Program Aims To Get Black And Latino Entrepreneurs A Seat At The Table

Charli Cooksey (left), founder and CEO of WEPOWER, listens to entrepreneurs Reina Stovall (right) and Dr. Brittany Conners (middle) during one of Elevate/Elevar's focus group meetings on March 13, 2019.
Charli Cooksey (left), founder and CEO of WEPOWER, listens to entrepreneurs Reina Stovall (right) and Dr. Brittany Conners (middle) during one of Elevate/Elevar's focus group meetings on March 13.

According to a report by Diversity VC and Rate My Investor, less than 1% of all venture capital funding supports black entrepreneurs and 1.8% of funding backs Latino founders.

The St. Louis organization WEPOWER aims to boost those percentages. Recently, the company initiated Elevate/Elevar, an accelerator program for black and Latino entrepreneurs. The goal is to increase their chances to build wealth and enhance economic growth in their communities. 

Charli Cooksey, the founder and CEO of WEPOWER, believes long-term power structures have been used to control black and Latino communities. 

“It's so important to center community voice in economic development — especially in areas and populations with histories of systemic divestment,” Cooksey said. “We’re working to accelerate differently by building a model where development occurs in partnership with community members and builds collective power.”

Cooksey’s focus on creating connections between the community and economic development is what led to the development of Elevate/Elevar. The program intentionally targets rising black and Latino business owners in St. Louis who need support in scaling their businesses and finding investors.

Assessing needs

Before WEPOWER adapted the program’s investment curriculum from the venture capital firm Village Capital, the company spoke with 100 local black and Latino business owners and asked them about the challenges they faced. Over half of the entrepreneurs said they need more funding and could use more help with growing their customer bases. 

WEPOWER also questioned community members from divested neighborhoods about what their needs were from local companies. Most of the residents said they are looking for jobs that pay a living wage. 

The rigorous six-month Elevate/Elevar curriculum will dive into business strategies like investment planning, customer discovery, building networks, marketing and branding and seed funding. 

In order to connect black and Latino communities with local businesses, Cooksey said Elevate/Elevar is committed to supporting companies that want to hire at or above a living wage.

“We want to create the next generation of entrepreneurs as well, so when we talk about wealth, that's not something that happens overnight. This is a generational thing, and so we have to start somewhere,” said Edgar Payano, WEPOWER’s entrepreneurship support fellow.

‘Trick doors’

Brittany Conners, Elevate/Elevar applicant and owner of Optimistic Theory, is hoping that the program will help her become a well-rounded entrepreneur and learn how to be investment ready. Conners said as a black woman entrepreneur, she is struggling to get meetings with potential investors. 

“You can’t even get in the door,” Conners said. “Sometimes the doors feel like trick doors. You have to know someone in order for them to even know we exist.”

Conners also said it is hard to find black women mentors in the field of occupational therapy, and when it comes to finding funding, she feels invisible and undervalued.

“Your voice is not there, or you feel like you have to adjust who you are to even show up and be accepted,” she said. “And I've been to other great companies and programs that are building entrepreneurs, but I don't see anybody like me.”

This year, WEPOWER will accept 10 applicants to the accelerator program and aims to provide $30,000 in funding to each company within the first few months of the program. There is also a possibility that additional funding will be available for companies that complete the course. 

The application period closes on Sept. 15. For more information on the application process visit WEPOWER.

Andrea Y. Henderson is part of the public-radio collaborative Sharing America, covering the intersection of race, identity and culture. This initiative, funded by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, includes reporters in Hartford, St. Louis, Kansas City, and Portland, Oregon. Follow Andrea at @drebjournalist.

Send questions and comments about this story to feedback@stlpublicradio.org.

Andrea covers race, identity & culture at St. Louis Public Radio.