If you wanted a meeting with the mayor of your town to discuss a problem in your neighborhood, and some billionaire developer also wanted a meeting with the mayor for whatever reason, who do you think the mayor would meet with first? Probably the billionaire. Most mayors meet with constituents, but there isn’t a mayor of any city in America who wouldn’t drop what they are doing to meet with a billionaire. Kelly Burton, founder and CEO of the Black Innovation Alliance, understands this dynamic, and not only because she has a doctorate in political science.
Burton was born and raised in Camden, NJ, perennially the poorest city in the state and among the most impoverished in the nation, but her family moved to prosperous Moorestown, NJ, a few miles and a world away where she graduated high school. The disparities were stark, and made a lasting impression on Burton. She went on to graduate from Clark Atlanta University with a bachelor’s degree in political science, and then earned a Phd in the same discipline from Emory University.
After completing her doctorate, Burton founded Nexus Research Group, a consulting firm that helps organizations working toward social change. She also launched her short-lived athleisure line called “Bodyology.” The company folded after three years because of the lack of funding and resources, which is typical of many black-owned startups. That experience led Burton to create “Founders of Color,” a non-profit organization dedicated to helping minority businesses scale.
We asked Kelly Burton about her upbringing, the difference where you grow up makes, and why she founded the Black Innovation Alliance, focused squarely on building up Black entrepreneurs and closing the racial wealth gap, instead of pursuing a career in politics or government.
Grit Daily: You were born and raised in Camden, New Jersey, which is ranked among the poorest cities in the United States and the poorest city in New Jersey, an otherwise wealthy state. However, your family moved to Moorestown, NJ, a wealthy white collar town only a few miles away from Camden, where you graduated high school. What insights did you gain from that early life experience?
Kelly Burton: Place matters. Where you are born has implications for your life outcomes. One of the greatest predictors for how your life will turn out is the zip code you are born into and I learned that first hand growing up. In Camden, the primary pathways were not that great. You could be smart, but if you didn’t have a solid support system and real outlets to other experiences, then your options were limited. In Moorestown, people didn’t really have to navigate those lower rungs of Maslov’s hierarchy of needs, related to safety and addressing the basic needs of life, so things came easier. That said, the expectation was high, which set the conditions for success. I felt grateful to have experienced both because the former grounded me and that latter really pushed me.
Grit Daily: You earned your bachelors in political science from Clark Atlanta University, the first HBCU in the South, and your Phd, also in political science, from Emory University, yet the focus of the organization you’ve founded is providing resources for Blacks in the innovation and tech sector. Please tell us why you chose this path, as opposed to working for office holders or political candidates (Stacy Abrams comes to mind), or something similar?
Kelly Burton: I pursued political science because I’m fascinated by power – how people build it, how they use it and how systems come together to shape people’s reality. Professional politics is one path out of many that you can take if these are things that interest you. I decided early on that I would try to impact the system from the outside, not the inside. I got into entrepreneurship because I came to realize that business interests largely drive American and geopolitical politics. If I wanted to influence politics, then I needed to understand business.
Grit Daily: You describe yourself as a “recovering academic.” What do you mean by that?
Kelly Burton: I realized in graduate school that academia was not my “happy place”. I love the rigorous thinking that happens in the academy but the ivory tower effect goes against the grain of who I am as a person. It’s hard for academics to interface with real world problems because the academy isn’t set up in ways that really incentivize that. So, I chose not to be a professor and to instead, use what I’d learned in acquiring my PhD to launch a consulting practice which kickstarted my career as an entrepreneur.
Grit Daily: Global brands, including eBay, Google and UBS, have invested nearly $3,000,000 in BIA over the past two years. What was your pitch to them?
Kelly Burton: Black Innovation Alliance is a network of networks. There are 86 organizations that are part of our coalition and they represent over 300,000 entrepreneurs of color. So, by partnering BIA, you’re not just partnering with an organization, but with an ecosystem, an emergent customer base of innovators, thought leaders, industry experts and trendsetters. That’s a compelling opportunity and we’re quickly developing a track record for doing work that is capable of really moving the needle.
Grit Daily: The BIA includes nearly 100 member organizations supporting more than 300,000 innovators of color across the country. Those sound like big numbers, but what is the scale of the need you’re trying to address?
Kelly Burton: According to a recent study, it will take 228 years for the average Black family wealth to catch up to the average white family wealth. And given the way our economy is structured, the gap is widening with time, not closing. Entrepreneurship is the #1 wealth creator in the world and it holds a lot of possibility for the Black community in closing the racial wealth gap, however we’ve a low performing ecosystem that is random and fragmented. If we fail to build the sort of high-performance ecosystem that is necessary for entrepreneurs to thrive, we’ll miss the one real shot we have for closing the racial wealth gap. BIA is the only organization solely committed to building that ecosystem.
Grit Daily: The racial wealth gap in America is pretty much by design, isn’t it? From slavery to redlining, in law and custom, America has been rigged to impoverish Black people. As an activist you are working to build Black businesses but as a political scientist, what do you think the federal government has a responsibility to do, legislatively and in policy, to address the racial wealth gap it has done so much to create?
Kelly Burton: The government is not going to do much of anything unless the people force them to. That’s why what we’re building at Black Innovation Alliance is so important. Earlier this year, we advocated for and helped launch the historic Congressional Caucus on Black Innovation. The ultimate goal is to deliver an omnibus bill on Black Innovation. In November, we are announcing our full policy agenda. A preview can be found on our site at Blackinnovationalliance.com. In addition to enlisting lawmakers, and offering up policy solutions, we are also building a ground game that will allow us to put the power back in the hands of the people.
Peter Page is the Contributions Editor at Grit Daily. Formerly at Entrepreneur.com, he began his journalism career as a newspaper reporter long before print journalism had even heard of the internet, much less realized it would demolish the industry. The years he worked a police reporter are a big influence on his world view to this day. Page has some degree of expertise in environmental policy, the energy economy, ecosystem dynamics, the anthropology of urban gangs, the workings of civil and criminal courts, politics, the machinations of government, and the art of crystallizing thought in writing.