As sisters Marian Arafiena and Anita Egbune watched the Black Lives Matter movement explode on their social media feeds and in the headlines over the past few weeks from their home in London they kept coming back to the same question. “How can we help?”
“We were watching the news about George Floyd and all that happened in the aftermath with demonstrations being organised. It wasn’t possible for us to march for practical and health reasons as we live in a shared home with other family members.” says Anita. “So we looked at what we could do to bring about genuine, lasting and sustainable change. Real action,” adds Marian.
That’s when they decided to think about their skills and expertise to set up one of the UK’s first crowdfunding platform for black-owned businesses. It’s called Rise Fund N’Go and, believe it or not, it’s one the first of its kind in the country.
Both sisters are well placed to help nurture new enterprise given their seriously accomplished careers. Marian has a background in engineering (a sector that’s only 12 percent female, she tells me). She works specifically on infrastructure and innovation projects and she’s a STEM ambassador. And Anita has been in banking and finance for 20 years currently working for an investment back on projects related to financial planning and strategy. “It’s very male dominated where I work,” Anita says. “There’s only a handful of people who look like me and in senior management.”
As two black women who’ve navigated the ranks of male dominated and gruelling sectors, they know a thing or two about some of the challenges that women and people of colour face in the workplace. Unconscious bias, ageism, sexism and racism are all systemic issues that employers across industry need to address. And in the startup and investment world the figures show an undeniable lack of representation.
A 2019 report into the diversity deficit in venture capitalism found that women are significantly under represented. The proportion of women in London VC firms was 29% compared to 46% for the working London population. Shockingly 39% of London venture funds had no women at all. This figure gets worse the higher up the ranks you go. 65% of funds in London have decision making teams that are all-male. As in, no women at all at the top table.
Add to that the additional layer of under representation of ethnic minorities. A survey in the same report found that the VC community in London was predominantly white compared to the proportion of white people in the population. It also found that black VCs were significantly under-represented. So there is clearly a gap that needs to be addressed. Rise Fund N’Go is one of the ways that Marian and Anita are hoping to do that. “This platform allows us to offer more diversity in business,” says Marian.
Anita gives a stark real-world example of just how difficult it can be for black-owned businesses to get off the ground. “Let’s say, for example, someone goes to the bank with a proposal to make foundation and beauty products for black skin tones because they know that Sephora is going to dedicate 15% of shelf space to black-owned businesses. And then the person who’s appraising the application at the bank asks for proof of concept.” At this point, both women pause contemplating the prospect of having to prove that black women need or want foundation. “You’re having to go through hoops that you should not necessarily have to go through,” says Anita.
“The hope is that people will start to change the way they see the market. It also allows investors to see things differently,” adds Marian. In case you’ve not already noticed these two finish each other’s sentences with the natural rhythm that perhaps only sisters will understand. But they don’t talk over one another. They listen intently before adding or contributing a thought. It’s a good indication of the solutions driven mindset that they’ll evidently approach the crowdfunding platform.
So how exactly will Rise Fund N’Go work? In short, you can be anyone, with any idea or even an existing business to use this platform. The criteria is that the business is black led with in excess of 50% black leadership. You go on the site to create a campaign, similar to other crowdfunding platforms like GoFundMe or Kickstarter. Here you can outline the mission of the business and upload images or video.
Once you’ve submitted your campaign or idea, it goes into the Rise Fund N’Go system for review and approval before it goes live on the site. The RiseFundN’Go team will give feedback where appropriate. “It’s donation and rewards based rather than being equity based. We’ll give feedback and guidance,” explains Marian. So in theory a company could return to the platform several times depending on what phase of evolution the business is at. Think of it as being like going through different funding rounds or being in an incubator.
But how will Rise Fund N’Go maintain quality control and ensure that scams or already successful businesses don't take advantage or dominate the space? “It’s community led,” says Marian. “We can’t act as guarantors. It’s not VC led. But it is about engendering that good will from donors. We want to maintain the integrity of the platform. There is a curation aspect and campaigns don’t go live immediately without being reviewed and approved first. We will guide businesses, help them make their ideas achievable, costed, project managed and with goals that are broken down into stages.”
The women are keen to impress that while Rise Fund N’Go is about black-owned business, it’s not about segregation or only supporting black business. There is an episode of the Netflix series ‘Trigger Warning With Killer Mike’ called ‘Living Black’ where the rapper and activist spends three days using and consuming only products that come from the black community. Mike ends up wandering the streets trying to find black-owned accommodation or a meal made with food produced by black-owned farms. He ends up hungry and sleeping on a bench. It’s a powerful and thought provoking way of making a point about the dominance of white industry in the US. “At the moment (black-owned businesses) are not even in the game,” says Anita. “This is about balance. It’s about making sure there is always an option”. And in typical fashion Marian finishes her sister’s sentence, “The platform will succeed and fail on the quality of the submissions. We want to see ideas. Now is the time.”