It was like a match made in start-up heaven.
Awamary Khan, CFO at Raleigh-based Carolina Small Business Development Fund, became aware of the work being done in Charlotte by Sherrell Dorsey and #BLKTECHCLT shortly after opening CSBDF's new Innovation & Entrepreneurship Center. It was clear that the two could benefit from a partnership.
CSBDF's statewide mission to inject capital into small businesses, especially those run by minorities, matches up well with #BLKTECHCLT goal, which is to provide an all-inclusive space where people of color in the tech world can network and discuss their own experiences in a lily-white world.
With #BLKTECHCLT just a day away, we spoke with Khan about her organization's vision, and why Dorsey's events are necessary in a world where a person of color's struggle can easily go ignored.
Creative Loafing:What does CSBDF do, exactly?
We are in the small business lending area. We are statewide, so across the entire state of North Carolina, we focus on small business and the underserved population. In Charlotte particularly, obviously it's a big area, we have two business development offices there who handle our technical assistance — which is one-on-one coaching with small businesses — and then trying to get small businesses to know that we're there for capital. So mainly what we do is inject capital into these small, Main Street businesses; not necessarily into the tech world per se, but it could be tech.
As long as you're looking for a loan and you can't be served by the banks — most of the borrowers or clients that we see can't be served by a bank. They're not bankable. They are high-risk loans that we go with, but that's the only way that we can reach the underserved population, especially being that based on many studies, African-American and Latinos have serious issues accessing capital.
Why did you decide to link up with #BLKTECHCLT?
In the Charlotte area, we already have the business development offices, so how do we extend our platform and reach further into the African-American population — and in this case within the tech world — to show more diversity in that sense that we're here? How do we partner and what would this partnership mean for us, especially now that we have this Innovation Center, and how do we increase that reach to come all the way to Raleigh and extend back to figure out how we can increase our partnership with Johnson C. Smith University?
You'll have CSBDF reps from the Charlotte offices at the event on Thursday night. What message will they be trying to get across?
They will be doing a presentation and doing community outreach for the Charlotte area. They'll be looking for capital injection for these businesses — if they're looking for loans or have family members that need loans. For us, it's building job, creating jobs in the economy, helping Main Street businesses flourish in the market and increasing the awareness that we're there.
Not only should you come to us when you need the money, but we are there if you think, "Oh, I have this idea." There's a light bulb. "I have an idea to open a bread shop, a bakery, but that's all I know. How can I take that little idea and make it into something?" For us, it's like, "Ok, this is what you have to do." We work with them, and these are all free services that you can access. We can help you build your business plan, we can help you with your projections, we can help you if you're looking at your next steps.
That's why we have the new Innovation Center, where a student can come even if they live in Charlotte and access this. A student comes in and says, "I want to develop an app, what do I do?" We help you partner with the right appropriate people here within the community. So for us obviously, that's not what we do in CSBDF, but we have people who are ready to take that on. We can say, "We have people that we can refer you to, are you open to that?"
You cofounded a tech startup with your husband before joining on with CSBDF. How does your experience as a woman of color in the tech world help you recognize the importance of ventures like #BLKTECHCLT?
It's definitely been for me, and especially for my husband, who has been more involved and engaged on the operations side, you do see the obstacles that we go through. It's definitely different. I think about most of the challenges that he goes through, one is accessing capital. We've never had a loan. Everything that we've done has been straight out of pocket, what we've invested were our savings. It's not one single debt we acquired.
Then even to see some of the people that have started at the same time as us, where they are to where he is completely being different, because it's so hard to have a person of color going in to get certain contracts. You still kind of have that lack of trust sometimes with being that person of color. "Do I trust that this entire business is being run by a person of color? Can I trust to make sure that you can really handle it?"
At the same time, he's definitely had some great things that have also happened because he's a person of color. So, I think either way you look at it, unfortunately, your color does come into play.
What can be done to make young people of color feel more comfortable entering the tech world?
I think education to be honest, and that's why I really pushed for this Innovation and Entrepreneurship Center, because I go into HQ Raleigh or American Underground in Raleigh and you might be lucky, real lucky, if you see one other person of color, or one other woman in my case.
My husband is a tech guy, and he never knew that these events are happening or that they existed until I told him about it. Where are they going and how are they marketing these things and where's the outreach? I think the outreach is number one; you have to do more outreach and education to let them know that you're there.
And how do you reach the entire tech base, or how do you go to schools, to HBCUs, and encourage them, to let them know that we do exist? It's OK to go into the tech world. When you think about tech, you think about Caucasian, middle class, Silicon Valley kind of guys. They don't picture themselves there, like it's not OK. So I think we have to make sure to let them know that, "No, it is OK." I was very impressed the first time I went into TechSquare [Labs, a diverse incubator in Atlanta] and saw that all of them were African-American and saw that, "Oh my God, you exist." Finally I found that.
We need to see this, or these, across the nation. It should not just be in Atlanta. Obviously it's great in Atlanta, but I would love to see something like that in Charlotte or Raleigh. To answer your question it will be definitely be more education and more outreach. So what Sherrell is doing in Charlotte is great, but maybe see how we can bring that into Raleigh, seeing how Raleigh is getting bigger in the tech world. Maybe we could host one at the Innovation Center. We need to encourage some of these students