Just a glance at Shelly Bell and you’ll know she’s a creative. It could be the colorful Mohawk, the vivid makeup, or the stylish clothes, but there’s no hiding her well-developed right brain. Still, she says her evenly matched left brain is just as instrumental in her success.
After all, Bell is all about numbers. She’s a computer scientist by training. Which side is calling the shots as the founder manages Black Girl Ventures? It takes her whole brain, in all of its glory, to do that.
Black Girl Ventures is a community dedicated to creating access to capital for female founders of color. Bell started BGV in 2016 and has since funded 41 Black-and-brown-women-owned businesses. It may sound like finance is the backbone of the initiative, but Bell says that community was the motivating factor for starting BGV in the wake of her success with screen printing company Ms Print USA. “I was like, ‘Wow, I built a cool business. I’m making money and that’s great, but I’m also super lonely,'” she recalls.
When asked how something like BGV would have changed her life, it doesn’t take Bell long to reply, “Something like Black Girl Ventures did change my life, and it was the poetry community. It was us gathering together with a common interest on a regular basis and seeing people who understood me.”
She built BGV with the goal of a similar sense of community, but with the added appeal of getting that group together to help with access to capital for other small businesses like hers. This was a means of raising capital with a difference: Bell was inspired by the art world events she had helped organize, rather than any other fund that ever existed. This results in what Bell terms “long-term, sustainable impact and community connections.”
That centers around BGV Pitch, pitch competitions in which attendees donate and get to vote on which competitors win that money. Bell calls it “Kickstarter meets ‘Shark Tank.'” (Upcoming 2020 BGV Pitch competitions will be held in Austin, Houston, Durham, Miami, Birmingham, and Philadelphia.)
Women who have been funded include engineer Brittany Young of B-360, a Baltimore-based program that ties dirt bike culture to STEM careers. Since winning a BGV competition in 2017, the first pitch she ever attempted, she’s also racked up an Echoing Green fellowship and is now a TED fellow. Bell also mentions Jasmine Edwards of i-Subz, a platform that connects substitute teachers to underprivileged schools without the outsize effort that most have to put forth to get placed — or to find qualified teachers. Since her 2018 win, she’s been featured in USA Today and won a Camelback Ventures fellowship, a feat Young can also claim.
Both are Black women, but Bell says that she wants to do a better job attracting other minorities, whether they’re veterans, have a disability, or simply identify as brown. One challenge for data-focused Bell is that there aren’t good numbers on how funding is going for other minorities like LGBTQ+, seniors, and the disabled community. Chances are, though, BGV could also benefit people in those groups.
But funding isn’t the only thing that needs to become more inclusive. “The C-suite needs to be diversified,” she says. And when she talks about diversity, she isn’t just referring to the obvious. She thinks cognitive diversity is overlooked. “Having all the same people from all the same schools — it’s not diverse,” she says. “While we do need everyone to understand a certain story line, we also need different kinds of thought.”
Part of the way to solve this is to encourage minorities of all kinds to become ecosystem builders in their own rights. Bell’s advice for doing it? “I think that you can gather people around a cause that you care about in your city or your market. You can become a thought leader and start evangelizing,” she says.
For her, that recently meant speaking on a panel on the diversity and inclusion track at CES with Alice co-founder and president Elizabeth Gore. “Elizabeth herself is just a powerhouse. She is a voice in this work,” says Bell.
And she says that she appreciates Alice being “a bold voice” not only in promoting the New Majority of business owners, but in doing so by gathering data. “We’re gathering it for the most positive purpose: We want to see women win,” she says. And few things make this computer scientist’s brain light up quite like hard data. Except, of course, using her creativity to make those numbers look a little more encouraging every day.