Shelly Bell started what was to become Black Girl Ventures, a foundation that provides BIPOC business founders with the monetary resources and skills for success, in a living room with around 30 other women. The foundation started on the idea of “Shark Tank”-meets-Kickstarter-style competitions where entrepreneurs pitch their business ideas. Through partnerships and grants, it has expanded to include virtual networking opportunities and nine-month fellowship programs for BIPOC women entrepreneurs. Along with founding Black Girl Ventures, Bell works as a motivational speaker and hosts a podcast. We caught up with Bell about the inspiration behind Black Girl Ventures, her mantras and her experience working with Nike.
District Fray: What inspired you to start Black Girl Ventures?
Shelly Bell: I got laid off twice and decided to start a business. I was doing merchandise printing, and the news came out: Black women are not getting access to capital. Black women are starting businesses at six times the national average yet receiving less than 1% of capital. I was a K-12 teacher for a while. I sold vacuum cleaners when I was in college. I worked in workforce development. I worked for the patent trademark office. I’m a computer scientist and taught computer science to high school students. I’ve lived a lot of lives and done a lot of things. By this time, I was like, “Well, let’s pull some people together, put some money in a hat and give it away.” I put it up on meetup.com [and] 30 women [met] inside a house in Southeast D.C. We got together and voted with marbles and coffee mugs. It is built historically off of the “rent party,” which is a part of African American history where during the Great Migration, as Black people migrated to Harlem, white landowners raised the rent and Black people threw rent parties. These were not your average parties. It was Fats Waller, Duke Ellington [and] major African American greats who were involved in these rent parties. People would get together, have a party and use that money to pay their rent. People liked it, so I kept doing it.
Your mantra is “resist being average.” How does Black Girl Ventures teach women entrepreneurs to do just that?
The idea of being average is about awareness. There are phrases out there to say things like, “The sum total of everybody’s attitudes, thoughts and wealth around you: You are a mirror of that.” We encourage people to create their own reflections in new mirrors, if that’s what they want. We empower them to know that there are people who will act on their behalf. If you don’t have friends and family around, we are your friends and family right now. We believe you have great ideas. We believe you have something to change the world.
You were recently featured on a Nike billboard. Can you talk more about that engagement and what it means to you?
This Nike engagement has been such an amazing experience. Developing this relationship with them began with a cold email from my board chair, who believed we were going to get money from Nike. That literally was it. She sent an email saying who we are and we didn’t get a response at first. But then, they reached back out and we started doing some relationship building and having conversations. The employees have been so amazing at working to get our story out and advocating for us along the way. The billboard was breathtaking. It is definitely a trailblazing sort of connection to be there alongside amazing athletes. Even before the Nike engagement, I was saying when it comes to ecosystem building, I’m an elite athlete. We work hard. We work out. [We] work those muscles to build up business [and] go out into the game. We play hard. We play real.
What is next for Black Girl Ventures?
What is next is to continue to scale our efforts. We have locked in on a systematic way of delivering low-barrier access to capital [for] Black and brown women founders. We’ve tried it [and] we’ve proven we can see the impact of it. Now, we just want to go bigger with it. We just launched [chapters] in Chicago, Miami, Philly, Cincinnati and New York. We will launch five more in the fall.
Number one piece of career advice? The first thing that comes to my mind is “Don’t knock it until you try it,” because I’ve pivoted so much. Favorite part of your job? Getting to hear different stories from different women across the world. Who is your biggest inspiration? Right now, my biggest inspiration is Tina Turner. Why? I just watched [her] documentary that came out [recently], and her ability to reinvent herself in a lane that nobody thought she could make it in at her age [resonated with me]. Favorite place in D.C.? The FDR Memorial. The waterfalls. What are you looking forward to most post-pandemic? Hugging people. Who is an artist you’ve been listening to lately? Bruno Mars and Anderson .Paak. I’m more listening to songs than I am artists. Do you have a song you’ve been listening to a lot? I’m not necessarily a big Beyoncé fan, but recently, the song I have been listening to of Beyoncé’s is “BIGGER” from “The Lion King” soundtrack. Best way to relax after a long week? Orange juice and binge-watching movies. What is a film you recommend everyone watches? “Judas and the Black Messiah.” What is your favorite meal? I like salmon and rice. I love the Busboys [and Poets] blackened salmon with the sauce they put on it. It’s amazing. What does a perfect day in D.C. look like for you? It looks like spring: not too hot, not too cold, just being outside. It could be Cherry Blossom Festival-style, over at the water in Georgetown [or] sitting out dining. Dream guest on your podcast? Oprah.
Learn more about Bell and listen to her podcast “A Dose of Disruption” on her website www.iamshellybell.com and follow her on Instagram at @iamshellybell. Learn more about Black Girl Ventures on www.blackgirlventures.org or follow @blackgirlventures on Instagram.
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