Pharrell Williams Launches Black Ambition

Partners Include Adidas, Chanel, the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, The Rockefeller Foundation, Tony’s Chocolonely and the Visa Foundation

Non-profit Initiative to Provide Bridge to Success for Black & Latinx Entrepreneurs through The Black Ambition HBCU Prize and The Black Ambition Prize

Pharrell Williams Portrait Session

Producer and rapper Pharrell Williams is coupling his entrepreneurial spirit and activism with the launch of Black Ambition, an incubator for Black and Latinx entrepreneurs launching startups in tech, design, healthcare and consumer products. Williams, 47, is the frontman for the initiative that awards grand prizes ranging from $1 million for a national competition to a $250,000 Historically Black College or University (HBCU) prize. The competitions, announced Wednesday, will run simultaneously. While the capital will go a long way to give Black and Latinx founded businesses a leg up, it’s the mentorship and training that Williams and partnering organizations are banking on to bridge the racial wealth and equity gap.

“White VC founders and those in private equity represent north of 80% of people who receive funding, while African Americans represent less than 1%. Whether it’s a $15,000 prize or a $250,000 prize, if founders win something, they’re going to get the mentorship and strategic scaffolding,” Williams told Forbes. ”We are setting founders up for the odds to be in their favor, that’s the game-changer here.”

The initiative looks to HBCUs as fertile ground for tomorrow’s leading companies and innovative ideas which Williams and other founders hope will attract venture capital. 

“Part of what Black Ambition is going to do is say ‘here are folks that are investable and will be creating the next big companies of the future’,” Willa Seldon, partner at Bridgespan, a philanthropic and nonprofit consulting firm partnering with Black Ambition, said. “Venture capitalists are becoming more diverse but there’s still not capital going to those new venture players. Mainstream VCs are also interested in doing more about this, It’s also a huge market opportunity.”

In 2019, Black and Latinx people spent a combined $3 trillion in the marketplace, Seldon noted. “That’s a market that’s worth investing in,” she said. As these communities and the entrepreneurs they create will garner more attention from investors, Black Ambition founders are also looking for companies that tap into consumer sensibilities. Increasingly that means companies do more than put on a face of social responsibility but practice it. 

In the wake of a tumultuous summer that saw the killing of yet another unarmed Black man, George Floyd, and a spike in coronavirus cases, corporations responded by making big promises and in some cases writing big checks. Months out, many are eager for accountability and fulfillment of these promises. 

“This summer all of our favorite brands pledged to do better and this is a distinct opportunity for these brands to show up in a really meaningful and impactful way,” said Darla Vaughn, head of brand marketing at William’s music and multimedia label, I am OTHER. “Together we can dispel age-old, lazy talking points and myths we hear that Black and Latinx talent doesn’t exist. Black Ambition gives brands a chance to authenticity play a role in dismantling systems of oppression.”

The initiative has raised an undisclosed amount of funds from Adidas, Chanel, the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, The Rockefeller Foundation and the Visa Foundation among others and is looking to partner with more companies for mentorship. To bolster the mentorship opportunity, Black Ambition has brought on resources from more established accelerators and nonprofits like the United Negro College Fund (UNCF) and TechStars. All applicants who apply for Black Ambition will gain access to Betaworks studios, a startup and seed-stage company focused on early consumer-facing companies. Initial partnering HBCUs include Virginia-based Norfolk State and Florida A&M University. 

Prize winners from Black Ambition’s inaugural class will be announced in July 2021. HBCU students, alumni, and matriculated students who weren’t conferred a degree are invited to participate.

“Our Black institutions have done so much for us and being in partnership with them is a statement in itself, but the goal is to bring Black ambition to fruition,” Williams said.

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