Bet on Black Women for Smarter Cities

The image of start-up culture is often filled with tech products and fast growth. Sherrell Dorsey wants us to change our focus on where start-ups happen, and who starts them. Neighborhoods are filled with them, when neighbors find ways to assist neighbors. She asks readers to “imagine for a second if startups were understood to be more than just what occurs in a garage, dorm room, kitchen table, or tech conference—but also what builds a community, wherever that may be…. What would our cities look like in that case?”

To change the future of work for the better, let’s prioritize people-first, not tech-first, businesses.
By Sherrell Dorsey

In my hometown of Seattle, at the age of 14, I stepped onto the Microsoft campus for my first internship feeling like a big shot. My experience within this epicenter of tech innovation was a significant step in my career journey, but it was not the launching pad for my future in the workforce.

Before I built my chops on Bill Gates’ turf, I’d learned the world of work through Monica McAffee. “Auntie Monica,” as we called her, had been my mom’s nail technician since I was five years old. By the time I’d become a teenager, I’d mastered the art of styling my own hair in between visits to the salon. One day, observing my technical talent for tresses, Auntie Monica invited me onto her team to assist her with styling clients in the shop a few hours a week.

The shop was a masterclass in business and developing a supportive workplace culture. Auntie Monica was precise. She’d run her business for over 25 years, with clients who grew up with her. She served church folk, regular people, Black women of all backgrounds, shapes, sizes, and styles. Some were grandmothers. Moms. Wives. Sisters. Cousins. All were like family to her.

Auntie Monica saw them grow up. She nurtured them, and often fed them when Uncle Kev, her husband and business partner, would fry chicken after a long week and serve up guests when appointments would seep into the late evening.

Auntie Monica represented fullness in entrepreneurship. She ran a business that enabled her own personal wealth journey, which consisted of a hefty real estate portfolio and a well-traveled life—on her terms. For me, she set a standard for hard work, relationship development, company culture, customer service and financial intelligence. This valuable incubation, which was skipped over by leaders who downplayed the genius on our side of town, is at the core of my audacious dream for the future of work.

Imagine for a second if startups were understood to be more than just what occurs in a garage, dorm room, kitchen table, or tech conference—but also what builds a community, wherever that may be. Consider what would happen if we didn’t only focus our attention and investment in what is high growth and high tech, but also paid attention to the microcosms of communities that are people-first versus tech-first: the daycares, coffee shops, bakeries, plumbing services, and more. What would our cities look like in that case?

I’ll tell you.

We would see widespread development. Inner cities and lower-income or disadvantaged communities, for the first time in history, would be deemed hubs for innovation instead of urban problems. The creators and trailblazers who live in these underserved hotspots would no longer be neglected.

Imagine for a second if startups were seen to be more than just what occurs in a garage, dorm room or tech conference—but also what builds a community, wherever that may be.

Black women entrepreneurs who, like Auntie Monica, are skilled in effectively incubating young Black entrepreneurs would be recognized as the training institutions that they are for the future of work. Thus, the nature of the service and vocational industries become centers of empowerment, job training, economic mobility and community stability during a time where the sector at large is experiencing high turnover.

This would hold especially true in the service industry, where Black women are overrepresented. In 2021, 25% of Black women workers worked in service occupations, compared with just 18% of white women workers and 12% of white men. As a result, if nothing else, we must direct our focus in that direction.

I imagine a city concerned with inclusive innovation and job growth as one that undoubtedly intends to provide Black women-owned service businesses with the utmost support they deserve. At the surface, this support means funding them to become accelerators to small business growth and providing resources for them to offer paid internship programs for locals.

A 2021 census report found that businesses owned and operated by people of color tend to employ people within their own communities. And yet, these aren’t the business owners often considered to be launching pads for educating and training the future of the workforce. Reshaping a city to be conscious of this would yield a significant impact on the local service industry.

When Black women are let down and left out of the growth equation, cities lose a valuable source of economic and social capital.

Now, the urge to argue that service occupations are a source of automation risk, particularly for the African-American workforce, is understandable. But I would counter that notion by presenting this as an opportunity to invest in training. Progressive cities must consider taking steps toward up-skilling and retraining Black-owned service-sector businesses for positions that can’t yet be claimed by automation.

According to a 2017 McKinsey Global Institute analysis, Black service-industry workers have access to fewer economic resources to address their potential displacement on their own, so it will take collaboration across the private, public and social sectors to promote retraining opportunities for African Americans. I’d like to see us do it, changing our approach and making an effort to build forward-thinking communities, even in the inner cities. By dismissing opportunities like this all around us, we have consistently squandered possibilities to be revolutionary in our communities.

Take a snapshot of any city in the United States today, and please, zoom in. You’ll notice that much more can be done to drastically improve the livability for Black women and to prioritize them in the work landscape of the future. From the west coast to the east, I’ve spent years living and working across the country, and the root of the disappointment is the same: a lack of support and accessibility.

In Charlotte, North Carolina, I worked alongside Black women who fought tooth and nail to no avail for their voices to be heard, the value of their work understood, and adequate resources put in their reach.

Illustrated by Steffi Walthall for Bloomberg Magazine

It’s obvious that when Black women are let down and left out of the growth equation, cities lose a valuable source of economic and social capital. So why not reshape a city designed to work for them rather than against them in every way possible? For the workforce that extends beyond the workplace, let us also rethink how we structure coworking spaces.

My best friend and business partner of over 10 years, Enovia Bedford, enrolled her son in a school with a coworking space on campus. She is able to run her remote business in close proximity to her son during work and school hours. What a lovely sight! He is taken care of, while she handles what she needs to in order to provide for their family.

Consider reshaping a city with more setups like this. Rather than jumping through hurdles of discrimination and facing the psychological warfare of male-centered corporate systems, Black mothers who want to focus on growing businesses and creating their own income can do so without jeopardizing their availability for their children.

The worth of Black women’s contributions to building communities is not exclusively measured in terms of their output. With education and careers being the focus for many policymakers, it can be easy to forget about the minds and bodies behind those institutions. Wellness amenities, as of now, are a luxury for many, mainly located in places where white folks raise their families.

I would like to reimagine such environments and centers as a requirement for health and productivity in spaces where Black women live. Dare to provide neighborhoods populated by Black families with top-tier therapeutic services, a comprehensive spectrum of maternal care, nutrition and exercise, and fill every corner with green space. Through the collaborative effort of public and private partnerships, we can create safe, culturally rich environments that prioritize services for physical and mental health.

This future I speak of may take time and directed investments to realize, but it is not out of reach if we can agree on where the movement must begin—at the top. The lack of representation at higher levels of business and government pervades our cities, resulting in the disproportionate work landscape we see locally.

Through it all, the Black woman has been an underrated pioneer, an overlooked incubator, an interrupted power, and—far too often—a missed opportunity for investment. It is past time to reevaluate our priorities and reimagine the destinies of our cities to say no more.

This excerpt was originally published by Bloomberg Magazine with permission from the publisher, Wiley, from Upper Hand: The Future of Work for the Rest of Us. by Sherrell Dorsey. Copyright © 2022 by John Wiley & Sons, Inc.. All rights reserved. Dorsey is also the founder and chief executive officer of The Plug-a news platform covering the Black innovation economy and available on the Bloomberg Terminal.

Editors: Brentin Mock, Jennifer Sondag
With assistance from Kelsey Butler and Jordyn Holman

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