Fay and I have moved in the same circles of Startup Champions Network and the ESHIP community for a little over a year now but it wasn’t until I moved to the Research Triangle area in November that we had the opportunity to sit down and have an actual conversation about the work and interests we have in common.
During our conversation in downtown Durham, we took a deep dive into Fay’s history and I was reminded once more that you only do this work long-time if you yourself have gone through the trials and tribulations of an immature ecosystem. Fay experienced first hand what it means to start an entrepreneurial support organization (ESO) in an ecosystem where inclusion is a nascent concept. And she is now working to help communities build truly diverse, equity-based entrepreneurial ecosystems across the United States. But first a little backstory:
Preface: From film school to entrepreneur
A local of Winston-Salem, Fay was a part of the inaugural class of the NC School of the Arts Filmmaking School before joining the YWCA as Director of Marketing and Youth Programs and later serving as executive director of Girls Incorporated, ‘a national nonprofit program encouraging all girls to be strong, smart, & bold.’ In 2014, Fay had the opportunity to spend some time in Oahu, Hawaii, where “for the first time, I experienced the unique intersection of many of my passions: supporting women, nonprofit management and empowering entrepreneurs. When I returned to North Carolina, I knew that that was the place for me to make a difference. My naive intention was to start a business focused on marketing for women-owned businesses. With no idea what it even was, I attended my first Startup Weekend shortly after I returned. Now I know that is fairly commonplace, but at that moment I was taken aback that I was only one of a few women at the event and the only woman of color.
My first Startup Weekend was not at all designed with mothers or working parents in mind, let alone people of color.
I pitched my ‘women’s marketing company’ idea among all these white tech startups; my idea was not picked. Shocking, I know. I was about to leave the event but something inside me was so intrigued by this new-to-me world of startups that I took my hand off the door knob, turned around and rejoined my team. Throughout the weekend, although it was an energizing and inspiring experience, I also realized that it was not at all designed with mothers or working parents in mind, let alone people of color. But it reinforced the need for my original business idea. A co-working space owner who had heard my pitch invited me to join his space for a year and work on my idea which I happily accepted. And before I knew it, I had launched an initiative (InovateHER) to support and train women entrepreneurs.”
Interlude – Advocating for entrepreneurs
“In every role I have held since 2015, I focused my efforts on representing and advocating for the needs of minority entrepreneurs. I facilitated workshops and trainings on diversity and inclusion. I was trying to educate actors in the local ecosystem about the importance of granting equal access and opportunity to founders of all backgrounds, ethnicities, race and gender. And … let’s just say that didn’t always make me the most popular person in the room.
Advocating for the needs of ALL entrepreneurs didn’t always make me the most popular person in the room.
Over time, I became so frustrated with how minority founders were treated and the lack of support for leaders of color that I became a very outspoken advocate for matters of diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) within my local ecosystem. What I didn’t understand back then was that even though I might have been speaking truth to power, publicly speaking out about observed inequities is generally not the best opening salvo; in fact, many times it can lead to a defensiveness that shuts down the conversation. I learned that lesson the hard way.
I’ve learned that a better approach is to connect one on one and just say, “Hey, let’s talk about this.” What I’ve come to discover over the past couple of years is that, for the most part, there is genuine willingness to improve the current system and to be inclusive, although most organizations do not know what that actually looks like in practice or understand the level of intentionality required to operationalize it. Those early ecosystem experiences in my hometown were like a trial by fire that, in many ways, refined and defined me. And joining Forward Cities was a great place to put my hard-won knowledge to work.
The Status Quo:
At the time of our interview (December 2019), Fay is the president at Forward Cities: a national nonprofit equipping communities and regions to grow and sustain more equitable entrepreneurial ecosystems. “In this role, I partner in mission, strategy for the organization, lead program design, oversee the Forward Cities’ Learning Networks and Marketing departments, as well as our Community Innovation and ESHIP Communities teams.”
What’s the best part about your current role?
“I have a knack for identifying gaps and envisioning solutions. I’m driven by a desire to ensure that there is equitable leadership, both in local entrepreneurial ecosystems and in the emergence of this new field of entrepreneurial ecosystem building. In my role at Forward Cities, as vice-chair at Startup Champions Network and as a member of the ESHIP community, I get to live into that on many fronts. I love to distill my learnings into writing and program design to create spaces for belonging and safety for diverse entrepreneurs and ecosystem builders, as well as their allies.
If you don’t bake DEI into your ecosystem’s values from the start, you’ll never truly have it.
As a national resource provider, we [Forward Cities] have a deep desire to help communities grow and have their best interest at heart. But we come in as a third party, an outsider. That requires building deep and genuine trust, not only within the ecosystem but also between the ecosystem and our team. And this deep level of trust is only possible when all stakeholders – no matter what color their skin – feel safe, feel like they belong and feel like their opinions count. THAT is what I’m here to do.”
“As an ecosystem builder, I ask myself ‘Where else is there a need to serve?’ and that’s where I’ll go.
My vision is that one day my work is less about addressing barriers and more about helping entrepreneurs and ecosystem builders of color grow and thrive. There is a lot yet to be done.
Personally, I have come to understand the deep personal toll that this intense social justice work can have on an individual. I want to prioritize my health as well as to find and immerse myself in a local ecosystem of like minds. I travel a lot for my current role and I love connecting with other ecosystem builders who work across the nation and look at the big picture. That’s what’s great about communities like Startup Champions Network and ESHIP. We have a shorthand with one another, a built-in community of people who share many of your values and understand what we are striving for.
What can we help with?
“I would love to see more ecosystem builders of color in this emerging field. We still face a lot of unique challenges in this sector, a lot of healing needs to happen and I would love to connect with more peers and support one another. I am dedicated to helping to create more spaces to connect and learn from each other and to equip allies; the upcoming Startup Champions Summit in San Antonio will be a great opportunity to do just that; all are invited!”
To learn more about Fay’s approach to ecosystem building and healing, read her piece Moving Beyond Inclusion: An Entrepreneurial Ecosystem Builder’s Imperative.
Durham, North Carolina, US
Inclusive Entrepreneurship Expert. Artist and swimmer. Traveler and Mother.