Pharrell Williams announced on Tuesday (Dec. 1) the launch of Black Ambition, a non-profit initiative set to support Black and Latinx entrepreneurs who are launching tech, design, healthcare, consumer products and services startups. The initiative is committed to leveling the playing field and fostering the ingenuity, determination, and resilience of underrepresented entrepreneurs.
“Recent events and tragedies have illustrated the always existent stark divisions in the American experience, and while entrepreneurship has long been a tenet of the American dream, marginalized people have faced long-standing barriers to success,” Williams said in a statement. “With Black Ambition, the goal is to help strengthen the pipeline of talented entrepreneurs and close the opportunity and wealth gaps derived from limited access to capital and resources.” As part of the launch, the Grammy Award-winning recording artist announced two prize competitions, The Black Ambition HBCU Prize and The Black Ambition Prize.
Starting today (Dec. 2), the initiative launched its nationwide call for applications from eligible founder teams. The Black Ambition HBCU Prize, created in partnership with historically Black colleges and universities, will offer prizes and mentorship for current and former students at HBCUs as they develop seed or early-stage ideas and launch companies in tech, design, healthcare, and consumer products and services. The grand prize winner will receive up to a $250,000 prize and at least nine additional teams will receive smaller prizes. Teams must include at least one current HBCU undergraduate or graduate student (full-time or part-time), one recent alum within two years of graduation, or one former student within two years of attending the institution who is a member of the founding team.
This HBCU-affiliated individual must identify as Black/African/African American and/or Hispanic/Latino/a/Latinx. The Black Ambition Prize will find, support, and seed early-stage companies in tech, design, healthcare, and consumer products and services. Ventures must have at least one founder or co-founder that identifies as Black/African/African American and/or Hispanic/Latino/a/Latinx. The grand prize winner will receive up to a $1 million prize and at least nine additional teams will receive smaller prizes.
For both prizes, a member of the founding team is defined as having a senior role, such as VP or C-level role. Next July, the two competitions will culminate in teams competing for prizes by presenting to judges and investors. In addition to financial awards, the entrepreneurs will receive mentorship and feedback as well as access to peer networks and expert connections. All screened applicants will receive access to online resources, information about business resources, and high-level feedback. Semifinalists will also receive cohort-based mentorship. Finalists will receive personal mentorship, opportunities for media exposure, and introductions to venture capitalists, angel investors, and accelerator partners.
Williams further discussed the new initiative during a virtual press conference along with Dr. Javaune Adams-Gaston, President, Norfolk State University, Dr. Larry Robinson, President, Florida A&M University, Willa Seldon, Senior Advisor for Black Ambition and Partner at Bridgespan and Darla Vaughn, Head of Brand Marketing at I am OTHER. The press conference was moderated by Teen Vogue’s Editor in Chief Lindsay Peoples Wagner. “We need a voice and in order for us to have a voice, we have to have some ownership. We have the smallest slice of the American pie in terms of ownership,” Williams said, expressing Black Ambition’s long-term vision is for inclusive entrepreneurship to be the new normal.
“We would like to manifest our ambitions. We can’t just say we have them. What do they look like? This is what it looks like. This is what Black Ambition looks like.” A major component of creating that new normal, according to Williams, was connecting with HBCUs. “We have to support our Black institutions. They have done so much for us. Even if I didn’t go myself, I’ve seen the wonders that genius educators impart on those students.” Dr. Javaune Adams-Gaston expressed gratitude to Williams for the launch of Black Ambition and reflected on a recent venture capital incubator in which she noticed the severe lack of HBCUs.
“As I went through the building, the flags of the major institutions — the Ivies, the large publics — were across the incubator. But HBCUs were woefully missing. That speaks volumes to me about who gets access and who gets opportunities,” Adams-Gaston said. With Black Ambition in play, she feels her students and those at other HBCUs will now have the opportunity to do “what they are best at.” Speaking on brand involvement, Darla Vaughn touched on this summer’s surge of Black Lives Matter protests and the subsequent swell by brands to offer support to Black and people of color communities. “This summer we heard all of our favorite brands pledge to do better. This is a distinct opportunity for these brands to show up in a really meaningful and impactful way. Together we can dispel these age-old, really lazy talking points that we hear that Black and Latinx talent doesn’t exist. Black Ambition gives brands a chance to authentically play a role in dismantling systems of oppression,” Vaughn said.
Black Ambition’s advisory team includes Williams, with support from The Bridgespan Group, a global nonprofit organization that advises mission-driven organizations, nonprofits, philanthropists and impact investors. Artist, designer and philanthropist Virgil Abloh is involved with the initiative and contributed the Black Ambition logo and identity concept design. Black Ambition is supported by funding from Adidas, Chanel, the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, The Rockefeller Foundation, Tony’s Chocolonely and the Visa Foundation. Individual donors include Ron Conway and SV Angel and Jonah Peretti. Mattel is releasing a product created in partnership with Black Ambition in the coming weeks, and Tony’s Chocolonely is making a special Black Ambition chocolate bar with a portion of proceeds from both products benefiting the non-profit initiative.
“I know you’re out there. I know you’re ready to do incredible things,” Williams shared during the press conference, speaking to Black and Latinx entrepreneurs directly. “You might think the deck is stacked against you because historically it has been, but we cannot wait to meet you all and see the amazing world-changing companies that you’re going to create.”
This article originally appeared on The Hollywood Reporter.