How Black founders are breaking down barriers and building brilliant businesses
It was so inspiring to sit down with my incredible friend, Karl Lokko, who co-founded Black Seed Ventures with Cyril Lutterodt in 2021 to help Black founders secure funding, and Lola Cawood, who is the co-founder (alongside Carol Lathbridge) of a brilliant and sustainable lifestyle brand called Tiwani Heritage. We met at Black Seed’s buzzing office in Brixton as part of Virgin Unite’s Founders Unite initiative set up to shine a light on Black founders, Black business excellence and help break down some of the additional barriers they face.
Lola and Carol are school friends, mothers, and the founders of Tiwani Heritage. Like almost all black female founders, in launching their business, Lola and Carol have faced and,through resilience and tenacity, have overcome some incredibly challenging odds. Just 0.24% of Venture Capital (VC) funding in the UK went to Black founders in the past decade and Black female founders received just 0.02% of that fundingI had to take a moment to really take in those numbers, given that black founded businesses go on to become some of the most successful in the UK, these numbers are not only unacceptable but don’t make any kind of sense from an investment point of view.
Despite these odds, Lola and Carol applied for a loan from Virgin StartUp in 2020 and launched Tiwani Heritage as a sustainable lifestyle brand. The brand has developed a range of premium and recyclable hair extensions that fill a gap in the market. Lola and Carol also wanted to show other Black women and girls that they can follow their dreams and start their own businesses too.As Lola said: “Representation matters, and you’ve got to see someone out there who looks like you doing ‘x, y and z’ to conceive you could be out there doing it too.” You can’t be what you can’t see.
Throughout our chat, we discussed everything from funding to representation, sustainability, the power of community, overcoming imposter syndrome, embracing imperfection, and why we need diversity to overcome the world’s biggest challenges. As Karl said:
It’s also about diversity of thought, a diverse lens… This is why the inclusion piece is not a charitable bid. A lot of the problems that remain unsolved are, I believe, because of exclusions. The more we include, the more solutions we have.
Karl co-founded Black Seed Ventures alongside Cyril in 2021 to address these exclusions and provide funding for Black entrepreneurswho, largely due to race, are furthest from the opportunities. Less than two years in and they’ve already raised £10 million pound of funding for 30 entrepreneurs. Incredible.
Black SeedThis ambition and resilience is what amazes me most about entrepreneurs who face these barriers. They clear so many hurdles to pave a more open path for others to follow. Despite the barriers, Black founders continue to drive innovation and build a better future with diverse ideas. In fact, a 2020 study by the Federation of Small Business reported that 30% of minority ethnic owned businesses have recently engaged in product or service innovation, compared to only 11% of non-ethnic minority firms. Tiwani Heritage is extremely proud to be contributing to this innovation drive. Beyond their unique recycling programme, Lola and Carol are also developing a range of plant-based extensions from banana and pineapple fibres that are 100% biodegradable, non-toxic and plastic-free. Beyond inspiring.
Innovation aside, making entrepreneurship fair is simply the right thing to do. One way to make it more accessible is to make investment teams and VC firms more diverse. As Lola said:
A lot of investors fit a certain profile and don’t necessarily have an understanding of the afro hair industry, the challenge that are faced, and what we’re trying to do within the community… You have that understanding, and they don’t necessarily have that understanding, so do they fully understand your business proposition and your situation?
Beyond funding challenges and underrepresentation, Karl and Lola also mentioned that Black people are often excluded from entrepreneurship education and resources. Before starting their own journey, Lola and Carol didn’t realise just how many resources are out there (from grants to mentorship opportunities, networks, awards, start-up loans and more) to help you succeed. Here are a few that have come recommended:
Virgin StartUp’s extensive range of resources including programmes, loans, events, masterclasses, podcast, how-to guides, mentorship opportunities and beyond. The business plan template is a good resource to start with.
The Black Business Network’s support hub has a brilliant list of funds, grants, events, awards, marketplaces and more.
The Black Business Business Awards is a powerful community and annual award ceremony that celebrates exceptional Black professionals and entrepreneurs.
In fact, there are so many brilliant organisations out there working to address the additional, systemic barriers facing Black and other minority ethnic founders, that we at Virgin Unite have decided to launch an award to recognise their efforts. Our brand new ‘Founders Unite’ Award is now open for nominations, and we want to hear from any organisations which have undertaken particularly impressive work to tackle these systemic, entrenched barriers. This could be by undertaking research or advocacy, providing business support or funding or campaigning for policy change to help more members of Black, Asian and minority ethnic communities in the UK start or grow a business. Click here to enter, but hurry – the nomination window closes at midday on 9 January 2023. Submissions will be judged by a fantastic panel of business and diversity experts, chaired by Virgin Unite’s very own Trustee, Nathalie Richards.
Thank you so much to Lola and Karl for shining a light on the brilliance of Black businesses, and for paving the way for the next generation of entrepreneurs. Through Virgin Unite’s Founders Unite initiative, we’ll continue to share these stories and shine a light on the barriers Black founders are overcoming to make our world a better and more equitable place.