Knowing what I know now (Allyship pt. 1)

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In entrepreneurial ecosystem circles, we have talked about the importance of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) for several years. In that sense, I consider myself fortunate to have been around empathetic and outspoken changemakers who have always stood up for what’s right even when I was unable to fully comprehend the extent to which it mattered. 

My white privilege was preventing me from grasping the full picture.

I remember a heated and emotional conversation at the Startup Champions Network spring Summit in Fargo, North Dakota. Ecosystem builders of color were patiently trying to explain why we had to make more of an effort to be allies to entrepreneurs and ecosystem builders of color, and in what ways we were still falling short. To be honest, I sat in this circle and listened to my well-dressed friends who were the picture of success; and I could not comprehend what they were trying to tell me. Knowing what I know now, I understand that my white privilege was preventing me from grasping the full picture.

If we are not allies, in the most genuine, informed and dedicated way, we CANNOT be ecosystem builders.

Up until a month ago, I considered DEI one building block among others to be an outstanding ecosystem builder. Even though I had been in conversations and heard things like “People look over their shoulder when I walk behind them.”, I simply could not fathom the extent and depth of racism within American society. Paulo, Darius, Melissa, Rodney, Felicia – all of them are accomplished ecosystem builders leading organizations with national reach. These are professionals I look up to! There was NO WAY people clutch their purse when they saw them, or locked their car doors! What were they even talking about? Knowing what I know now, DEI is not merely a building block among others, it is the very foundation of every interaction and piece of work that we invest in building, nurturing and improving entrepreneurial ecosystems. If we are not allies, in the most genuine, informed and dedicated way, we CANNOT be ecosystem builders. I won’t have it. 

I invited them to join me at MY table assuming that was the only table there was.

When I returned from Fargo, I set up meetings with African American community leaders and entrepreneurs in Richmond, VA, to try to understand what I was missing. Once again, what I was told to be true (systemic racism) and what I was seeing with my own eyes (tenacious and resourceful entrepreneurs on the hustle) did not add up. I left those meetings with a “Let me know how I can help.” because I didn’t feel like they needed help. Knowing what I know now, I understand that I was sitting across the table from Afro-American entrepreneurs (in a white, hipster coffeeshop on campus nonetheless) who were tenacious and resourceful because they HAD to be if they were to survive and thrive in a system that has been engineered to suppress them and see them fail. 

Knowing what I know now, I was asking half-heartedly whether they wanted to sit at MY table assuming I had the generous power to invite them in. I left those meetings confused but nonetheless content because I felt like these entrepreneurs had everything under control and there wasn’t much I could do to help. I’ll admit it was somewhat convenient to step away from these uncomfortable conversations because I didn’t HAVE to deal with it on a daily basis. I had the privilege of turning my back on systemic racism because it didn’t seem to affect me directly and I didn’t know what my role was in addressing it anyway. But people of color, the LGBTQIA community, people with disabilities and other marginalized communities do not GET to take off their identity and care about something else. And if they can’t, why should I?

These last four weeks have been deeply painful. I feel as though I am finally starting to see what has been bubbling under the white surface for decades, what has been true for marginalized communities for decades and hundreds of years. I have lived in the U.S. since 2015; calling Richmond, VA, home for three years has kept me very close to the events of police brutality, tearing statues and peacefully protesting for change. 

As a white middle-class woman, I am no expert on this topic (yet). I am fully aware that I have yet to earn the right and legitimacy to educate others. But I want to share some of the voices and resources I have found helpful in the quest to become an ally for life.

For Social Venturers who live and work outside the United States, I hope to give you an insight into the personal, social and economic impact of systemic racism as we experience it. For all changemakers and ecosystem builders for social impact – nascent, emerging and existing – I hope this series gives you 

  • a personal connection and appreciation of the lived experience of systemic racism (part 2),
  • an insight into the organizational and systemic impacts of racism on organizations and entrepreneurial ecosystems (part 3).

Let me emphasize two points again for clarity:

  1. The first Africans were brought to Jamestown, VA, in 1619. Slavery and the resulting system of racial discrimination has been constructed over the last 401 years. Those of us just waking up from our White privilege cannot have the hubris to think that we can catch up and reform the system in a matter of days, weeks, months or – I’m afraid – even years. Disentangling and Dismantling this system will require a lifetime of informed action and collaboration. Luckily, this should be nothing new for systems thinkers.
  2. This is not a comprehensive Everything-You-Need-to-Know-About-Racism guide. What I’m sharing here is a selection of the resources that I found useful in trying to understand the systemic forces at play, and how to take informed action. For the most part, you will be reading voices and ideas from people who have years of lived experience with systemic racism. Thank you Ace, Josh, Tiffany & Matthew, Ross and Fay for sharing your experiences and insights!

This three-part series is from from all-encompassing or perfect. It is a starting point at best. At the very least, I hope it prevents at least one BIPOC person from being asked to do the emotional labor that people like me need to be doing ourselves.

I chose different channels to ensure that you will find something you connect with irrespective of whether you are a natural reader (books, articles, reports), visual learner (video) or listener (podcasts). I am trying my level-best to stay away from “10 ways to be a better ally” and “75 things you can do now to become anti-racist”; not because I don’t think they add value, but because I have come to believe that we cannot become anti-racists simply by following rules and call it a day. 

What I HAVE learned on my short journey so far is that 

  • We need to sit with our discomfort and work our way through these emotions of inadequacy, guilt and ignorance by reaching deep into our most empathetic selves and educating ourselves. There is no guidebook for being anti-racist. No quick fixes. We must understand, acknowledge and feel the injustice and learn to take informed action. This work cannot be done by anyone else for us, nor should it be. 
  • This is going to be a long journey, may we learn and fight for what’s right until the day we leave this Earth. From the first buildings on fire over the murder of George Floyd, I understood that I needed to pace myself. I watched my peers as they made public announcements about where they were donating and how they were becoming allies, basically overnight, and I was in awe. How did they already know what the right thing to do was? It took me longer to figure out my lane, a lane that would help me learn and understand and take informed action potentially for the rest of my life – even once the news circle moves on.
  • I am going to mess up. I will get it wrong because when you do something new that you have no experience in, you’re bound to get it wrong sometimes. But I will not quit. I will apologize and say Thank You, and I will try again. I will not quit. Because those experiencing racism or any either social injustice can’t quit either.

Download a list of resources mentioned in this series here.


photo credit: Vlad Tchompalov on Unsplash