Kelly Burton is changing the narrative for black-led innovator support organizations.
The chief exec of the Black Innovation Alliance is fired up to empower black-owned businesses. In fact, in just a few years BIA in has achieved the near impossible in everything from reports, projects, campaigns, conferences, grant distribution, and even in politics.
Since officially launching Black Innovation Alliance in June 2020, with fellow ecosystem leader Aniyia Williams (who still sits on the board) under Burton’s leadership BIA has experienced extraordinary growth.
From a handful of volunteers in the early days, BIA now has a dedicated team. Burton has seen the organization expand to include 89 members (whom Burton describes as “leaders in their own right”) that support well over 370,000 entrepreneurs. BIA has also raised/earned somewhere in the region of $6 million, which includes multi-year grants.
The ecosystem-building institution is dedicated to closing the wealth gap through the direct support of Black-led innovator support organizations in service to Black entrepreneurs, tech founders, and creatives.
Fresh off a jam-packed trip to Lisbon, Portugal for Web Summit when we caught up with Burton it is clear that more expansion and growth are still very much on the agenda. Burton says the goal now “is to bring 500 innovator support organizations into our network”, these organizations will allow BIA to reach a total of one million entrepreneurs across the country. For Burton and BIA, it is “all about directing resources: we want to direct $1 billion in resources to black organizations within the decade.”
Having recently onboarded 22 new organizations, Burton touts that the key to BIA’s success has been “the foundation of trust that the organization is built on”. She continues, “our members feel empowered to ask questions and we are always transparent about our resources.”
Launched at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, Burton says “it actually allowed things to come together really quickly for us.” She cites a sense of urgency and the availability of resources as conditions that “accelerated the coming together of BIA.”
As part of her commitment to closing the racial wealth gap in the US, Burton advocated for a Congressional Caucus on Black Innovation that took place earlier this year in April. Led by U.S. Representatives Stacey Plaskett (VI), Marilyn Strickland (WA), and Ritchie Torres (NY), CBI tackled the opportunities and challenges of engaging policymakers in advancing Black inclusion in the innovation economy.
Although she speaks positively of CBI as “a vehicle to bring attention to black innovation issues,” Burton insists that we still have a long way to go in the US. “The continual onus is on us, as black founders and business innovators to advocate for change, and others need to take responsibility.”
Speaking at Toronto’s Collision Conference in June, Burton and Plaskett underlined the importance of public sector support for black-led businesses. Burton reinforced the Black Innovation Alliance’s vision for a network of black entrepreneurs as a collective so that no individual ever feels alone in the process.
Burton is somewhat of a powerhouse. Having completed her Ph.D. at Emory University in Political Science, she is now working on a book that tackles the complex issues of democracy and race in the US head-on.
Burton argues that American democracy is built on a foundation of racial caste. The racial integration that is slowly occurring in America provides a fundamental challenge for the future of a democracy that is solely responsive to a white majority.
She admits that it is “spiritual work running an organization that centers people on the margins.” “It requires me to be mindful and to prioritize compassion,” she says.
“There are important conversations being had all the time and it can be messy.” Burton relies on a promise to herself and her partners and funders to “inflict no harm, and ensure we are always communicating.” As BIA’s team and member organizations continue to grow, it is with this foundational belief in the power of compassion that Burton is leading the way for us all, and for equity.
Disclaimer: UrbanGeekz is a member of BIA