'I hope we have hard, uncomfortable and honest conversations' - Keisha Senter
Closing the racial wealth gap is vital – economically and morally. This week, business leaders, investors and others will meet at the three-day virtual Spectrum event, to discuss what a truly inclusive economy looks like. With organiser Keisha Senter, we explore how investors can make big changes, why the shifts underway in the creative industries are so powerful – and her 'ones to watch' when it comes to leading grassroots change.
An event billed as “a community of multicultural changemakers creating an inclusive impact economy” – this week's Spectrum virtual gathering – could not be more timely, as protests continue in the US and far beyond, calling for an end to racial injustice.
Black and minority ethnic entrepreneurs are creating solutions to social and economic problems, but in many countries they struggle to access the funding, resources and networks that they need to succeed. The Spectrum event will bring together business leaders, social entrepreneurs, investors and others to explore a more inclusive way forward.
We put some questions to Keisha Senter, senior content lead at Spectrum. Keisha is also the founder of The Solution Senter, a US-based public affairs firm that delivers programmes and develops brands and messaging to help drive social change. She was previously vice-president of the Will and Jada Smith Family Foundation, a senior associate director at The Rockefeller Foundation, and the founding director of the Clinton Global Initiative University, a leadership development programme launched by former US President Bill Clinton.
Pioneers Post: You're speaking at SOCAP's Spectrum event this week, and you were involved in the event's programming. What do you hope will come out of the event?
Keisha Senter: When we first launched Spectrum last year in Atlanta, GA our goal was to create a community of multicultural changemakers, leaders, entrepreneurs and investors who are committed to creating an inclusive economy where everyone can truly thrive.
We believed then and still believe today, that if we put the right people in the room and encourage them to lead with their humanity and listen to understand, we can have conversations that not only address the challenges but identify solutions and actions.
Action is my north star for Spectrum. I hope we have hard, uncomfortable and honest conversations that result in new perspectives and narratives. I hope an entrepreneur’s pitch will resonate with an investor and push them to fund their work. I hope ideas are implemented, solutions are scaled, and new, long-term relationships are built.
PP: Recent events in the US have swept across the world, and been a wake-up call to many. What do you feel the role of social entrepreneurs should be in advancing this movement?
KS: The recent events have been tragic and very unfortunate, but they are only a wake-up call to some. Americans of colour have known about systemic inequities and disparities for far too long. We have lived with them and we have thrived and innovated in spite of them. It’s often said that the people closest to the problem are the ones closest to the solution.
Entrepreneurs of colour are at the centre of action around the complex social and economic needs crippling America. Despite not having the same level of access to funding, resources, and networks as their white peers, they are building dynamic organisations that solve problems and challenges within their communities and beyond.
Entrepreneurs of colour are at the centre of action around the complex social and economic needs crippling America
Leaders like Jasmine Crowe saw a problem right in her Atlanta community around hunger and the need to reduce food waste. She created Goodr, a tech enabled sustainable food waste management company that has diverted nearly two million pounds of food from landfills in Atlanta. Now her company operates in six cities and is projecting growth to 20 cities.
Julio Rivera saw how the stress and trauma of being the only person of colour in all-white spaces – especially at work – was impacting him and his friend’s health so he created Liberate. It’s a meditation app that features dharma talks and guided meditations by teachers of colour for people of colour. The first week he launched in February 2019 it was downloaded 150 times and today he has thousands of subscribers.
And there are millions of Jasmines and Julios out here building, creating and responding to the needs of their community. Actually, we are providing scholarships to 35 entrepreneurs across many sectors and who are at different stages of their company’s development to join us at Spectrum this week. We will provide them with resources, access to investors and the tools they need to grow and thrive. We are also opening nominations for our second cohort of 25 Game Changing Entrepreneurs of Color. It’s a digital magazine that features leaders who are disrupting, innovating and changing the social impact space.
My only advice is to continue to take the risks. If you have a burning idea, do it. If you see a gap, fill it. We need you.
PP: And what's the most important thing philanthropic foundations, corporates and other funders can do to play their part, in your view?
KS: I used to work for one of the most historic and influential philanthropic organisations in the world, The Rockefeller Foundation. Nothing made me prouder than to support the work of my grantees. To understand the issues they were trying to address and to give them funding, mentorship and resources to achieve those goals is a privilege and a position of power that I didn’t take for granted. It’s why I am so vocal about the responsibility I believe philanthropy has to do better. Philanthropy must take risks and invest in social enterprises and organisations that are led by, created by or have a person of colour in a leadership position. It is important to have leaders who understand and are representative of the communities that philanthropic organisations seek to serve.
Philanthropy has to have a race and equity lens through all its work. Covid-19 has taught us that race is cross-cutting, and it impacts social justice, health, housing, climate, economic advancement and so on.
Investors must take risks, diversify their portfolios and hire Black and Brown fund managers
Investors must take risks, diversify their portfolios and hire Black and Brown fund managers.
Business must be mission-driven. Many companies like Ben and Jerry’s and Chobani have shown us that you can do well by doing good. They must also put people of colour in leadership positions and make sure they have the power and resources needed to have impact. I question the authenticity of a company’s commitment to equity, if they launch external diversity and inclusion campaigns and projects but haven’t diversified their leadership and staff internally.
PP: Does Covid-19 present a threat or an opportunity for advancing equality?
KS: I’d say both. Covid-19 is killing people of colour, specifically Black, Latino and Indigenous people, at alarming rates. Additionally, we are also facing the worst rates of unemployment since the Great Depression. According to an article in Forbes Magazine last week, May’s unemployment numbers just may increase to over 20%. All of this is highlighting the cracks and gaps in our systems and unchecked racial inequities. The system has to change. I believe the circumstances of the last few months, including the tragic murder of George Floyd, have shaken the world.
We launched Spectrum with the support of the WK Kellogg Foundation to address the pandemic of systemic racism, specifically as it relates to wealth distribution and access. Now Covid has come along and compounded those conditions even more.
Every other day we are seeing companies, organisations and leaders speak about disparities and pledge equitable path forwards. The real question we need to be asking is: is all this a movement towards real, sustained change? I don’t know, but I truly hope so.
PP: You've worked with a long list of high-profile figures. Who most inspired you?
KS: I’ve been fortunate to have worked with some really extraordinary people. I started my career with Senator Charles Schumer in New York and I’ve never met a prouder New Yorker – whether we were in Brighton Beach, East New York or West Harlem, he knew the community and its people. President Clinton inspired me to listen to everyone. He was equally interested in hearing from an ambitious college student as he was talking to a fellow world leader. John Podesta encouraged me to continue to be bold, creative and never become a “Yes Woman”. Jada Pinkett Smith inspired me to bring my heart to the work.
But I would say that I am most inspired by the young people I’ve worked with throughout my career. I have built four national and global programmes designed to inspire, empower and give young people the tools they need to make their voices heard and build the future they want to see. Over the last six days we’ve seen high school and college students and millennials from all backgrounds take to the streets all across America to demand racial justice for all, but specifically for Black Americans. Their determination and courage are inspiring the entire world. The world is watching us. I am inspired by those who refuse to sit in silence and demand that history doesn’t continue to repeat itself.
PP: Your expertise lies in creative content and media. Which organisations or brands are deploying these tools in a really high-impact way, and what can social entrepreneurs learn from them?
KS: I think the creative and entertainment industry is having a moment right now. A moment that I hope continues and changes the industry. I am so excited to be a part of it. Creators of colour are telling their stories and unapologetically bringing their culture to the forefront whether it’s on the big screen or in people’s homes every night.
We are lucky to live in a time where we have Ava Duvernay using her talent to not only tell important social justice stories like 13th and When They See Us, but give us tools on how to be part of the change. Kenya Barris' Blackish is putting Black families in the homes of all Americans and Issa Rae is affirming the culture and highlighting the importance of supporting businesses of colour through humor and fun on Insecure. These creatives, along with many others, are truly changing the narrative and game.
These creatives are truly changing the narrative... I think others are watching, learning and thinking out of the box
I mentioned this earlier, we still need to see more diversity and inclusion in the decision-making rooms within the entertainment industry, but I am hopeful and inspired by the storytellers who are telling their stories their way.
An artist recently told me that psychologists diagnose the individual and artists diagnose society. I think I agree with him. During the pandemic we saw creatives as our medicine and inspiration to get us through quarantine – something none of us had ever experienced. Just by being himself and doing what he’s done since he was 15 years old, D-Nice became the world’s DJ and gave us the inspiration and music we needed to make it through. We’ve seen other artists during these unprecedented times leverage technology in creative and innovative ways. It’s put the power in the hands of the creators, and I think others are watching, learning and thinking out of the box. We are even doing it at Spectrum, with two virtual performances by two powerful artists – Raye Zaragoza and Marc Bamuthi Joseph – and a baking experience with a talented baker, Carrie Spindler.
PP: Finally, which grassroots or local organisation deserves more recognition for their work on diversity, inclusion or racial justice, and why?
KS: It’s impossible to name just one. We are featuring a number of them at Spectrum.
The great work Michael O’Bryan of The Village of Arts Humanities is doing on the ground in Philadelphia. He has spent more than a decade working directly with key populations —including veterans, adults in recovery, returning citizens, and families experiencing homelessness.
Rashad Robinson of The Color of Change is a leading voice on the importance of building political and cultural power for Black communities.
Crystal Echo Hawk of Illuminative advises tribal and philanthropic clients around food sovereignty, nutrition, health, revitalization of Native languages, issues related to the protection of tribal sovereignty and Native youth. As well as the NDN Collective, Impact America Fund and Amplify 4 Good.
I also work with the luxury brand, Gucci, on their Gucci Changemakers Initiative which includes a $6.5m impact fund and scholarship programme focused on three areas of impact: social justice and equity, art and culture and education. This year we awarded grants to 16 organisations like HBCUvc which is focused on training and preparing Black and Brown students for a career in venture capital and tech and the ACLU of Louisiana who is working towards reducing the number of people jailed before trial, and the length of their incarceration. HBCUvs’ CEO, Hadiyah Mujhid, will be joining us at Spectrum this year.
The road to achieving racial justice and equity is a long one and everyone one has an essential role to play in order for us to create real change. Change won’t happen overnight, and it won’t happen at the hands of just one leader, just one organisation or one industry. It’s going to take everyone across the spectrum. Our goal is for Spectrum to be the place where leaders, creators, innovators, investors, educators gather to shift, transform and take action.
The urgent need for access, inclusion, and impact among communities of colour will be addressed at Spectrum Virtual, 9-11 June. Hosted by Intentional.co’s Social Capital Markets (SOCAP), the three-day interactive gathering will feature multicultural changemakers, business leaders, entrepreneurs, innovators, cross-sector practitioners, and investors focused on closing the racial equity gap among the African American, Indigenous, Asian and Latino communities.
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