The New Builders

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A couple of weeks ago, Aiysha Johnson of GBE Labs asked us a great question in a podcast Q&A about our book, The New Builders.“Why,” she said, “did you put women and people of color together into a group when you created The New Builders?” It was a perceptive question. 

One of the underlying constructs of the book is the idea that, in a business context, women and people of color have more qualities and experiences in common than those that separate them.

In our research and writing, we found these experiences and qualities hold true for women and people of color: 

• They cannot access capital as readily

• They often do not identify themselves as great business leaders, and are not seen as readily as business owners or leaders

• Lifetimes of not fitting in have given them immense grit

• They are often more comfortable outside institutions than inside them – perhaps one of the reasons both women and people of color start businesses at a higher rate than others

• They are frequently at the receiving end of overt harassment and institutionalized prejudice.

In previous generations, people have lumped women and people of color, uncomfortably together as “minorities.” In fact, when taken together, they are the majority – a majority of today’s new entrepreneurs and the majority of today’s business owners.

And, because we wanted to honor and support them, to add to their agency and voice, we called them “New Builders”.

That’s the simple answer to Aiysha’s question.

But there are a number of other, and possibly more profound, concepts at play in our decision to create this moniker for this next generation of entrepreneurs. Some of them, we talk about in The New Builders. Others have emerged only in retrospect – the product of feedback on the book as well as more time to reflect on what being a “new builder” really means in our society

We both believe – perhaps a little naively and optimistically — that business in America, and especially grass-roots or  entrepreneurial business, forces us to see across barriers in new and creative ways. Company building is about segmenting markets and synthesizing markets at the same time. Staying true to this concept of entrepreneurship meant, for us, trying to understand the different experiences of groups and individuals at the same time we tried to see the commonalities.

This can be challenging as the politics of the last few decades has tended to emphasize our differences. The right-wing worries about identity politics. The left-wing worries about right-wing anger. In today’s poisonous atmosphere, we took a little bit of a risk in putting white women, immigrants, and people of color into the same category as Black Americans. In the United States, the legacy of slavery demeans and delegitimizes Black Americans in uniquely horrible and powerful ways. Elizabeth was attacked in a Facebook group for exactly this decision: as a white woman, she had co-opted the stories of Black people, the commenter wrote. Seth has been similarly called out – both in the same way Elizabeth has and from people in the venture capital industry who didn’t want to hear about the shortcomings of the venture model, particularly as it relates to funding New Builders.

To understand the decline in entrepreneurship and why today’s New Builders struggle to grow substantial enterprises, we had to figure out what the common elements were across today’s new business owners. We could only begin to see the picture by putting the experiences of different groups together.

Making progress requires taking risks. The risk of being called insensitive, or worse, a bigot, was relatively minor: words are powerful but rarely final. The reward of being open to the idea that many New Builders are more alike than different became clearer as we were writing. Stories with similar themes emerged, from the immigrant baker to the Ivy League educated outfitter. The services and solutions for this generation of entrepreneurs become clearer and more interesting when people realize the size of this underserved market.

The reception of The New Builders has proved us right. Identity politics, like the image of entrepreneurs as white male tech founders, is mostly an illusion created by people who make a living in the world of click-driven media. Segmenting is a useful tool – but at a certain point, you have to start synthesizing. Building anything, whether it’s a book, company, market or country, is about putting things together, not taking them apart.

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