In the lead up to the launch of Acumen America in 2016, we heard all the reasons it wouldn’t work.
We heard that there’s a social safety net here, one that prevents people from falling too far and facilitates upward mobility for everyone equally.
We heard that the capital markets work in America, so worthy startups don’t have trouble securing funding.
We heard that the reason people are poor in America is due to their lack of effort.
But above all, we heard how our country still holds tight to the ideal of the American Dream: that anyone, anywhere, can make it through hard work and initiative. It’s a worthy ideal.
It’s far from the truth. The reality is that our systems don’t work for the majority of Americans.
If you’re born poor in America, you will likely die poor.
If you’re a poor black woman, you’re 3-4 times more likely to experience a pregnancy-related complication than white women.
If you’re a Black or Latinx household you’re 3 times more likely to be unbanked than white households.
We launched Acumen America to help build a country that does work for all Americans. Our north star is investing in entrepreneurs with radical new business models that can change systems and help break down the cycle of poverty in America. We invest early, rolling up our sleeves to help. We support companies over the long haul. And in just 5 years we’ve seen these investments pay off with impact that disrupts the cycle of poverty and injustice in America.
Take, for example, Bitwise Industries in Fresno, CA. Co-founder Irma Olguin’s start-up brings tech workforce training to those who are all too often overlooked and underestimated. Irma grew up in the Central Valley of California and was the first in her family to attend college. She is the daughter and granddaughter of farmworkers. With her very first job in technology, she out-earned her entire family.
As Irma likes to say, people like her “never received the invitation” and Bitwise was built from the ground up to tackle that problem head-on. Since its launch, Bitwise has trained over 4,500 people to code. 72% are non-white, 40% are first generation Americans, and 80% of those trained got jobs in tech. 90% of those grads have remained in Fresno, creating 15,000 jobs. By uplifting thousands of people, Bitwise is changing an entire city.
Bitwise gives those who otherwise wouldn’t have had a chance to get a foot in the door of the tech industry the education and training they need. Irma isn’t stopping there. She announced earlier this year they’re expanding to Toledo—just the beginning as she takes the company to national scale.
Another example is Los Angeles-based Everytable. When Sam Polk launched the company, the goal was to provide nutritious meals at affordable prices to Angelenos who needed them most. Many communities Everytable serves are in food deserts with limited access to healthy foods. Since launch Everytable has provided over 8 million prepared meals in 10 locations and over 200 grab-and-go fridges in Los Angeles.
As the company continued to improve access to healthy meals, Sam recognized that the root cause of these food deserts lies in racial inequity, which is why Everytable launched its Social Equity Franchising program: giving aspiring entrepreneurs from historically underserved communities the support—both financial and educational—they need to open their own Everytable franchise.
Bitwise and Everytable are just two examples of companies headed by a new generation of leaders who are sharing ideas, sharing experiences, and working together to build an economy that makes sure everyone is invited. There are hundreds more brilliant founders with big, bold ideas who are spread out across the country. Their vision will help reimagine America.
The events of the past few years have put the urgent need to reimagine into stark relief. Movements such as Black Lives Matter and #MeToo in addition to the COVID-19 pandemic and opioid epidemic exposed a crisis of health, a crisis in our economy, and a crisis in our leadership.
But this period of dramatic change also creates an opportunity for innovative ideas to take root. It’s our goal to help these solutions grow and thrive. But to get there:
We need to hold up all voices.
We need radical new ideas.
We have to be willing to take risks.
We need to change systems.
We know there are no simple answers. Eradicating poverty requires addressing the inequities and injustices that are so deeply entrenched within so many of our institutions and economic systems. Entrepreneurs like Irma and Sam hold some of the solutions. They dream up the new ideas we need, they take these ideas to scale, and they break through walls to create change.
We’re launching Where to Next to elevate these ideas and leaders, and to connect a new community around this work. And we want you to add your voice, to hear about your successes, to help elevate great ideas and improve promising ones, to build a more resilient and robust country for everyone.
We hope you’ll join us.
– Catherine Casey Nanda and Amon Anderson