Shanté Williams’ first startup failed for many reasons.
Originally from Charlotte, Williams had a doctorate in biomedical sciences, but didn’t know how to start a business when she launched her first company in 2013. She lacked capital, a support system and experience.
“I got into entrepreneurship completely by accident,” Williams said. “I was kind of left to figure it out on my own.”
Years later, the scientist-turned-businesswoman would find a way to help others avoid the same obstacles.
“It all boiled down to the same three things: I need someone to believe in my dream, I need someone to not blame me for my past, and I need someone to give me the ‘money,” Williams said.
Williams also realized that she wanted to help others start their businesses. This led to Black Pearl Global Investments, a $25 million Charlotte-based asset management firm, which she co-founded and now leads as CEO. The company has made venture capital investments in healthcare startups in North America, Africa and the Caribbean.
In a new program, Black Pearl focuses on his hometown. The company’s new initiative, announced in June, will operate as a local lender for black businesses and the city’s startup scene, offering microloans of up to $100,000 to traditional and non-traditional businesses.
It’s designed to fill what Williams describes as a broad, systemic gap in resources available to black entrepreneurs in Charlotte — a city with a documented history of wealth destruction in communities of color.
“If you want to build something big, you need money,” she said.
Barriers Faced by Black Entrepreneurs
Black entrepreneurs can face unique obstacles when it comes to starting a business or pursuing a career as a business owner, Williams said. It’s something she’s seen firsthand as a business leader.
“Access and amount of capital is always a bigger issue for black businesses,” said Williams, who is also president of the Charlotte Mecklenburg Black Chamber of Commerce. “For many black entrepreneurs and business owners, failure really isn’t an option.”
That barrier has its roots in deep economic inequalities between black and white households, Williams said. She adds that because of the racial wealth gap, white families are more likely to have the kind of generational wealth that can serve as a safety net for fledgling entrepreneurs.
“If you have a family that lives off money…you can go to your parents and say, ‘Hey, I want to start a business.’ You have a head start,” Williams said.
However, discriminatory policies have historically hindered or even obliterated Charlotte’s black communities, making it more difficult to invest or start a new business. This story leaves lasting damage to the wealth, credit and other resources available to many black business owners, Williams said.
These economic disparities can also manifest in other ways, she added. If aspiring black entrepreneurs are already burnt out or financially overwhelmed, they are less likely to take the risk of starting their own business.
“You don’t have the margin for failure,” she said.
These structural factors add up to create an intimidating landscape for black entrepreneurs, she said.
Williams challenges everyone to walk around Uptown and ask themselves: Which buildings are owned or occupied by a black business?
“I think that’s the legacy of everything we’ve done,” she said. “And it’s not just Charlotte.”
“The risk seems different to us”
Many programs that aim to support Black or other minority-owned businesses often offer wraparound services like mentorship, referral or in-kind donations, Williams said. But these services do not always pay the rent.
Black Pearl’s approach of offering financing in the form of microloans is more straightforward, she said. The program will also offer loans to Charlotte businesses in “vice” industries – such as alcohol or CBD – which often struggle to access conventional banking products.
And because common creditworthiness measures can leave many promising entrepreneurs behind, Black Pearl is abandoning traditional underwriting methods when evaluating applicants, Williams said.
Instead, the company will use its own metrics and algorithms to assess creditworthiness and risk.
“Risk looks different to us,” Williams said. “Our stories mean that when we talk to entrepreneurs, we see ourselves in those people.
“We work so that you can bet on yourself and that it does not put your family at risk,” she said.
Growing a Business in Charlotte
Christal Brice was one of the first to receive a loan from Black Pearl. His company, Young Entrepreneurs and Servant Leaders Academy (YES), contracts with Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools to provide free after-school programs and tutoring services to homeless students and families.
Brice has been running the business from a small office north of Charlotte since last January.
But thanks to the loan from Black Pearl, YES Academy was able to rent a new facility on Bellhaven Boulevard – where the academy plans to house its summer camps and other enrichment programs.
Brice is also adding daycare and expanding YES Academy services to Wake County schools.
In the past, Brice said she struggled to find the capital to fund the growth of her slightly non-traditional business.
“That’s one of the problems that a lot of entrepreneurs have: I’m really there to do the job, but they still don’t believe me,” she said.
But Black Pearl’s microloan will change her business for the better, she said.
“I want to be one of those billion dollar agencies and empires. I’m growing this baby up to college,” she said.
A larger checkbook
In the first 24 hours of the new loan program’s launch in June, Black Pearl received nearly 250 requests for funding, Williams said. Calls came in from a dozen other cities asking if she could settle down.
“We’re going to need a much bigger checkbook,” she said.
Williams wants to continue to grow the loan program, ideally through a partnership with a national bank or other financial institution. An expansion would mean more funding and more loans available for Charlotte-based startups.
Knowing there is a huge need and demand, Williams hopes her vision will spread far beyond her reach.
“If companies grow and evolve, they can hire. It’s more jobs. If companies grow and evolve, they pay taxes. It’s a bigger tax base for the city of Charlotte,” she said. “Everyone benefits.”