Marking its third-year anniversary this August—which is also National Black Business Month—NC IDEA’s North Carolina Black Entrepreneurship Council (NC BEC) has awarded over $2 million in grants to Black entrepreneurs, entrepreneurial support organizations and Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) across the state.
The council was formed in 2020, partly in response to the death of George Floyd. Thom Ruhe, President & CEO of NC IDEA, said they wanted to do their part in helping to combat the systemic inequities impacting Black America, using the power of entrepreneurship.
Here’s a look at the impact of the council’s grants:
- The seven startup grant recipients—dubbed GROWTH grants—have created 66 jobs and raised $9 million in outside funding
- The 23 support orgs have helped 285+ companies and hosted 1,500+ events
- The five HBCU grantees will deploy $150,000 each for entrepreneurial curriculum and resources
“The goal of the Council is to level the playing field of entrepreneurial opportunity,” Ruhe said. “It has to be intentional.”
A 2023 study by Merchant Maverick found that North Carolina ranked among the top 10 best states for black entrepreneurs. The study specifically cited North Carolina, along with Maryland and Virginia, for their focused efforts—like NC BEC—to nurture minority-run businesses.
NC IDEA chose 20 individuals to join the NC BEC council after reviewing 150 applicants. The group then had lengthy conversations that were “positively messy,” as Ruhe described it, focusing on the biggest challenges faced by the under-served ecosystem.
He said the most obvious one is access to capital.
The National Bureau of Economic Research reported that the average level of startup capital for Black entrepreneurs is about $35,000 compared to about $107,000 for white entrepreneurs.
The other is a lack of ecosystem support to help close the training and skills gap, Ruhe said.
Let’s Hear From Startup Grant Recipients
Among the GROWTH grant recipients is Sonja Ebron, Co-Founder and CEO of Durham-based Courtroom5, a low-cost automated legal information service that helps people represent themselves in civil court.
“What I love most about NC IDEA is they are firmly committed to the goal of growing entrepreneurship in the state,” Ebron said.
Courtroom5 used the $75,000 NC BEC grant toward branding and delivering an ‘crisper’ message to their target audience. As a direct result of the grant, website traffic and the conversion rate from that traffic has increased. Ebron said funding is necessary for her company’s survival.
“We need more resources,” she said. “We need more organizations like [NC BEC]. And we need more focus on black entrepreneurship.”
Courtroom5 also received a $50K SEED grant from NC IDEA in December, 2018, which was the startup’s first external funding.
In fact, Ruhe said, for the majority of NC IDEA’s SEED and MICRO grantees—the $10K MICRO grants help very early-stage startups validate their initial idea—it is their first external funding. Just as importantly, the grants are their first major outside validation.
This was the case for another GROWTH grant recipient Bernard Worthy, Founder and CEO of LoanWell, which landed a SEED grant in the 2017 Fall cohort.
Based in Durham, LoanWell is an automated loan and grant origination platform with end-to-end functionality for intake, underwriting, closing, servicing and reporting. Specifically, with the BEC funding, the company was able to create new self-service configuration tools and hire an employee for a newly created role, helping them continue to scale.
“NC IDEA has been a crucial part of our story,” Worthy said.
Demographic Shift in Grants
In the last seven years, NC IDEA has shifted from 90% of its grants going to startups led by urban white men to 70% made to startups led by founders who are women, racial minorities or rural-based.
Ruhe said the reason behind the grantees being predominantly white men in the early days is that the ecosystem has historically catered to that demographic, so they dominated the applications. So, NC IDEA had to work hard to invest in these disenfranchised communities.
“We didn’t get that shift by precluding white men from the Triangle,” he said. “What we did was, we gave them a lot more competition.”
Among the support organizations that received BEC grants was Knox St. Studios, based out of Durham. Its mission is to empower the Black community by connecting and equipping entrepreneurs in the Triangle and beyond with the skills they need to create businesses, launch STEM careers and much more.
The funding was allocated toward staff compensation and operations.
Talib Graves-Mann, the Executive Director at Knox St. Studios, said that the NC BEC grant was great validation for their work. For the first few years, the organization was bootstrapped, and the team worked hard to provide value to the community as well as keep the lights on.
“NC IDEA is one of the most forward-thinking entrepreneur support organization serving North Carolina,” Graves-Mann wrote via email. “The BEC needs more investors in their model, so they can grow, expand, and put more money on the street to help further develop the talent across NC.”
For NC BEC to “put their money where their mouth is” time and time again means a lot, said LoanWell’s Worthy, but there is more to be done.
By the end of this fiscal year, Ruhe hopes to get other organizations to join in on this effort. They would be happy to have the council specific to the state, but are more than willing to scale it nationally.
“It’s not about getting credit for the work,” he said. “It’s about getting the work done.”