Enterprises led by overlooked founders represent a serious opportunity. Women started 49% of new businesses in the U.S. in 2021 at a rate of more than 1,800 new businesses a day. According to the 2019 American Express State of Women-Owned Businesses Report, half of those women-owned businesses were led by women of color. The nearly 13 million woman-owned businesses generate $1.9 trillion in revenue each year, and they employ 9.4 million people.
Despite their businesses being the fastest-growing segments of the entrepreneurial ecosystem, women, Black and Indigenous people of color (BIPOC), and other underrepresented business owners don’t have the same access to resources for success. The current entrepreneurial ecosystem largely favors white, male business owners, urban hubs, and a narrow slice of business models and types. For example, only 2% of venture capital goes to female-founded firms and less than 3% goes to Black or Latinx founders. Disparities like this exist at all levels of the entrepreneurial ecosystem, driving wealth gaps that will continue to grow unless there is a change in the system.
Meet Project DEEP: Developing Equitable Economies Program. Led by the Sorenson Impact Center at the University of Utah, this project aims to disrupt the entrepreneurial ecosystem status quo by connecting entrepreneurs and a new class of intentional investors into a supportive network of knowledge- and resource-sharing. Project DEEP offers a set of six complimentary on-demand video courses on entrepreneurship, investing, and ecosystem building led by proven subject matter experts. Here, Megan Brewster, Senior Manager at Sorenson Impact Center, shares how Project DEEP aims to unlock equitable wealth creation.
Sorenson Impact Center: How does Project DEEP aim to disrupt the entrepreneurial ecosystem status quo?
Megan Brewster: Project DEEP exists to accelerate the growth of women and people of color entrepreneurs by educating and connecting a new class of more intentional investors and decision-makers.
In Utah and more broadly across the U.S., the wealth and impact created by entrepreneurship remain largely concentrated in the hands of a homogenous few; folks outside of that generally white and male profile face additional barriers despite doing more with less. For example, women of color are starting businesses at four times the rate of all businesses, but our economic systems and norms continue to impose a disproportionate lack of access to capital, networks, and knowledge on these entrepreneurs.
Project DEEP aims to be one part of a multi-pronged solution that recognizes the strengths of these underestimated entrepreneurs and shifts the burden of change to the decision makers in the wider ecosystem including investors, economic developers, and support organizations. The ultimate goal is to support more equitable wealth creation.
SIC: How did the program come to fruition?
MB: In 2018, the Sorenson Impact Center began working with JPMorgan Chase on a landscape analysis of what business owners who identify as women and people of color in Utah need. The resulting report captured about a dozen recommendations to improve the ecosystem of entrepreneurial support, including providing more funding for local intermediaries who serve these entrepreneurs, providing more direct accessible education and resources for entrepreneurs, and educating power holders such as investors about how they can better improve the environment for underserved entrepreneurs.
Each of these is now a component of Project DEEP, which was made possible through a national grant from the Economic Development Administration plus additional funding from JPMorgan Chase as well as the Sorenson Impact Foundation.
SIC: How does the impact of the program on its participants lead to a broader benefit for society?
MB: Entrepreneurship has long been a part of what makes America dynamic. As the country continues to diversify demographically, it’s critical that we support all entrepreneurs more equitably in creating that innovation and wealth.
SIC: Who will benefit from the courses Project DEEP offers?
MB: Three of these courses are intended for entrepreneurs — to directly support them in accessing important knowledge that often isn’t covered explicitly in other spaces, such as understanding the funding landscape for growing their business or streamlining administrative systems. We found that a lot of key information is gated behind formal education or exclusive networks, and we’re aiming to democratize more of that need-to-know information.
The other three courses are created for power holders in the ecosystem such as investors, economic development leaders, and entrepreneur support organizations. These courses aim to diversify those professions and help shift behaviors to change the systems and practices that create additional barriers for women and BIPOC entrepreneurs. We need more diversity among investors to change who receives funding, and we need ecosystems and ultimately full economic sectors that are built from the start on inclusivity and equitable prosperity.
SIC: What can someone expect to take away from the Project DEEP courses?
MB: These courses bridge the tactical and the aspirational. They are designed to be highly applicable, with case studies and interviews plus a workbook with exercises and additional resources. They are easy to stop and start, reflecting our understanding that our target audience members live complex lives and have many aspirations.
At the same time, the courses set forth a vision of how our world could be different and how values should translate into practices. We hope participants walk away with actions they can take immediately to improve their business and profession — and a renewed commitment to creating more equitable economies.
SIC: The courses are led by notable leaders in the space. How were the teachers determined?
MB: Perhaps the best thing about Project DEEP is the world-class experts featured in each of these courses. They were carefully selected because of their extensive expertise in the content and also because they have lived experience with the challenges Project DEEP aims to solve. Our experts reflect the communities we aim to serve. We know there is power in learning from someone who looks like you and getting to know a more real, raw story about how they were shaped and the impact they are making now.
SIC: These courses are available to anyone at no cost. Why did you decide to offer the courses free of charge?
MB: We are grateful that our development costs were underpinned by our funding partners, allowing us to offer these courses for free. That decision reflects the values of Project DEEP in creating more accessible and inclusive support for entrepreneurs and decision-makers.
SIC: In addition to the video courses, this project has other components. Can you share more about those?
MB: We recently launched the technical assistance part of Project DEEP, which focuses on providing professional support and education to help entrepreneurs succeed. We are partnering with two leading local organizations, the Women’s Business Center of Utah and New Pattern, to provide this support through several educational training cohorts focused on women solopreneurs, who make up the vast majority of women entrepreneurs in Utah. Our partners are very thoughtful in providing culturally relevant support and building community to change the narrative of what a successful startup founder looks like.
SIC: How will the impact of this program be measured?
MB: We are measuring the impact of our efforts for the video series, the technical assistance, and the project overall through the third workstream, Impact Measurement. The Sorenson Impact Center has extensive experience in impact measurement for clients, so we are turning the lens to our own efforts to see what change will result from rigorous surveys, qualitative interviews, and other best practices. Additionally, we hope to provide shareable resources such as impact measurement frameworks and learnings for the space so other organizations can become more targeted in ensuring their work positively impacts overlooked entrepreneurs.
Visit the Project DEEP site to explore the on-demand video courses focused on entrepreneurship, investing, and ecosystem building led by world-class leaders. Join a community of business owners and investors working to disrupt the economics of entrepreneurship and unlock equitable wealth creation for underrepresented entrepreneurs and investors.