Pushing for equity in long-siloed industries might seem obvious to some, said Marcus Whitney, but advocates for change must remember that not everyone is on board — and some are actively working against level the playing field.
“I hate to say it, but we have enemies,” Whitney told a crowd gathered Thursday at Vine Street Brewing in Kansas City for BioNexus KC’s luncheon on investing in Black and Brown innovators. “That’s the reality. We have people who don’t believe in the work that we’re trying to do.”
Critics of such efforts around diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging often hold a fundamental difference of opinion on whether these goals are moral, continued Whitney, a serial entrepreneur, author, and co-founder of Nashville-based Jumpstart Health Investors.
That opposition most recently has manifested at the national level through scrutiny by conservative groups of DEI programs and funding. Notably, Edward Blum — a prominent anti-affirmative action activist — and his organization, the American Alliance for Equal Rights, have filed two recent racial discrimination lawsuits in the private sector that seek to upend programs intended to pour resources to underrepresented founders.
The U.S. Supreme Court’s decision earlier this year to effectively ban the use of affirmative action in college admissions, and similar actions by agencies across the country pose additional challenges for DEI efforts — and the work of unlocking access for all entrepreneurs, Whitney said.
Polarization of equity as a political tool means the issue will remain unsettled, with progress toward DEI goals often tied to geography, he told the Kansas City crowd.
“We’re going to be a very bipolar country, in terms of whether you’re in a blue trifecta state or red state or maybe a purple state; the guidelines and the rules are going to be pretty different,” said Whitney.
“You’re going to have some states that are going to say, DEI programs are literally immoral, and then you’re going to have some states that are going to say, ‘If you’re investing in companies, we want you to report on every single demographic that you’re making an investment in,” he continued.
“This work is about to get exponentially harder.”
‘Where do we go from here?’
Thursday’s private luncheon event at Vine Street Brewing, Kansas City’s first Black-owned brewery, aimed to spark essential discussion about the future of Black and Brown entrepreneurship amid political upheaval, said Dennis Ridenour.
“The idea was to be very intentional and gather Black and Brown entrepreneurs in the region, to shine a spotlight on you on the work you’re doing,” said Ridenour, CEO of BioNexus KC. “But also to provide opportunities for networking, promote connectivity among this community, and then to start the conversation about ‘Where do we go from here?”
Adding Whitney — founding partner of Jumpstart Health Investors (JHI) and head of Jumpstart Nova, a venture fund supporting Black-led startups — to the dialogue was a strategic fit with BioNexus KC’s own approach to DEI, as well as its focus on connecting a wider range of health care firms to the Kansas City region.
“We want them to be investing in Kansas City companies, and we want Kansas City investors involved with them,” said Ridenour.
Call to action for healthcare leaders
Whitney told the Vine Street Brewing crowd about his experience as a Black venture capitalist, and how he felt compelled to use his position in 2020 to address racial inequity in the wake of George Floyd’s killing at the hands of Minneapolis police, as well as the subsequent protests sweeping the country.
“It just became pretty clear to me, as pretty much the only Black venture capital partner in Nashville at the time, who had really fantastic relationships with people from civic engagement, and then also being in a very privileged position to write checks, I did have some responsibility to to say something in that market,” shared Whitney, who also served as the keynote speaker for Thursday night’s BioNexus KC Disrupt event at the Midland theater in Downtown Kansas City.
In an open letter sent to Whitney’s email list at the firm, Whitney addresses historical racism in Nashville’s healthcare industry, emphasizing wealth disparities and underrepresentation for Black people. He urged industry leaders to confront systemic racism, prioritize diverse leadership, and take immediate action for equality and justice.
The letter was later published online and more widely distributed.
Click here to read Marcus Whitney’s letter, “Calling Up Nashville’s Healthcare Leaders.”
“I tried to use that letter as an opportunity to not single them out, but to educate them on the history,” said Whitney. “Also to say, ‘You have power and you are not powerless in this moment. So, if you don’t like what you’re seeing, and this is making you uncomfortable, you can do something about that.’”
Jumpstarting a fund
The letter — initially written out of a sense of duty — sparked a series of conversations that eventually led to the creation of a venture fund aimed at rectifying decades of inequity, JumpStart Nova.
“I was very happy to see that the response was a ton of conversations that resulted in me feeling we have an opportunity to do something historic here and create this first-of-its-kind fund,” said Whitney.
“We get to do it in Nashville as part of rectifying the inequity that had been in place for 50-plus years. So, we leveraged our platform, Jumpstart Health Investors to launch that fund.”
In July 2020, Jumpstart Nova exceeded its initial $30 million target for its first fund, ultimately raising a $55 million. This achievement involved 97 limited partners, including some of the nation’s most significant healthcare institutions.
The success of JumpStart Nova in exceeding fundraising goals signifies significant progress in addressing long-standing industry inequities, Whitney said.
“Looking back, I could never have imagined what ended up happening over the next 10, 12, 13, or 14 years. I think a lot of times we overestimate what can be done in one year, and radically underestimate what can happen in 10,” he said.
Whitney encouraged Kansas City entrepreneurs to stay connected and create lasting relationships that they can dependably lean on as they continue to grow.
“Build these bonds and recognize the people who are in here shoulder to shoulder with you,” Whitney said. “Because y’all are going to need each other to get through these obstacles, and once you reach the success you are praying for.”