Kiera Smalls wrote a tweet two weeks ago that helped raise more than half a million dollars.
Smalls, executive director of Philly Startup Leaders (PSL), was musing about creating a fund that would give grants to Philadelphia’s underrepresented tech entrepreneurs and help erase the historic lack of local start-up founders who are women, people of color, or LGBTQ.
“Am I just dreaming?” Smalls tweeted.
Her community woke up.
The next day, the Philadelphia-based delivery service goPuff pledged $150,000 to PSL to help create grants for underrepresented founders. One week later, the state-backed venture capital firm Ben Franklin Technology Partners committed $150,000 with a promise to increase the donation to $250,000 if other investors agreed to match it.
Counting a previous $150,000 grant from Philadelphia’s Department of Commerce, PSL has received about $550,000 for its fund. A handful of other local start-ups, chief executives and angel investors have also pledged $10,000 to $20,000 each.
“We’re seeing so many ways that our city can step up to ensure this isn’t just a onetime thing,” Smalls said.
Many of these recent donations are in response to Smalls’ tweet and an email she wrote to the 350 members of PSL’s CEO group during the first weekend of Philadelphia’s protests over the death in police custody of George Floyd. She pressed them to check in with their black and brown employees and to consider making donations to help underrepresented entrepreneurs.
“Together, we can make our start-up ecosystem more reflective of the demographics of our city,” she wrote.
Minorities are notoriously underrepresented in venture-backed start-ups across the country. Smalls attributes much of this to a lack of representation among investors, resulting in insular decisions that often shut out certain groups. Recent protests and calls for social justice have only underscored that disparity. “I think it has made it so that we all take an intentional look at who’s been shut out in the tech industry as a whole,” she said.
Those are the sort of systemic problems that companies such as GoPuff hope to ameliorate. As a successful company that arose from the local start-up community, GoPuff has long collaborated with Smalls and her group. “When we saw Kiera’s tweet, we knew we were aligned with Philly Startup Leaders’ mission and immediately decided we wanted to get involved in a bigger way,” Daniel Folkman, GoPuff’s vice president of business, wrote in an email.
Beyond the company’s direct donation to PSL, executives have also pledged $500,000 to support minority-founded start-ups across the country, he said.
Even a small investment can have a dramatic impact, Smalls said.
“There are people who can do a lot with a little,” she said. Even money to help pay for a new website or conduct a survey can help take a business to the next level.
Over the last year, PSL received $150,000 from the city after the first round of its StartupPHL Venture Grants. With the help of PSL’s education programs and community, the partnership helped provide both funding and resources to grantees.
“We felt that in the long run this kind of two-pronged program [funding and education] would be more beneficial to the businesses and would increase their chances of viability,” Kevin Lessard, communications director for the city Department of Commerce, wrote in an email.
But in the midst of the fiscal crunch caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, which has already provoked proposed major cuts in the municipal budget, Smalls worries that the city won’t give a follow-up grant this year.
Lessard noted that although the Department of Commerce would “continue to prioritize supporting entrepreneurs of color,” its final spending choices remains unclear.
PSL will focus grant money on what Smalls calls “scalable start-ups,” those with the potential to take off exponentially. If an entrepreneur wants to create an e-commerce platform or start offering a delivery service, PSL would likely help fund those ideas for business growth, she said.
What’s inspired Smalls most over the last two weeks, however, isn’t her tweet or the media exposure from it, but the idea that these donations show a deep faith in PSL and its mission.
“When I sit back, I’m just so excited to know that people trust the organization, trust what we do because of the foundation we’ve set,” she said.