Britney Robbins spent her twenties working for some of the best start-ups in Chicago. There was just one problem: while the work they did was important, there were very few minorities employed along with Robbins. "They had incredible resources available, but I would typically be the only African American and definitely be the only African American woman," she explained. So Robbins wanted to bridge that gap. She realized, "It's not for a lack of trying that African Americans are not competitors in this space (entrepreneurship), but mostly due to a lack of information and resources available to those groups."
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That lack – and her passion for both entrepreneurship and the African American community – led her to create The Gray Matter Experience. Robbins believes that "empowering youth to create their own businesses can have (a) great impact on their own self-worth, (their) perception of the meaning of success, and can positively impact underrepresented neighborhoods across Chicago." And that's what The Gray Matter Experience does.
From the beginning, it was important that students not only learn entrepreneurship and business skills "but to also learn (those skills) from people who looked like them." The latter was especially important to Robbins as she explained that even if information is being distilled to these students if they can't see themselves in these business leaders and teachers, they don't realize "Hey, this is something I could actually do."
Last summer was the inaugural year of The Gray Matter Experience, starting with a cohort of 15 students (sophomores, juniors, and seniors in High School). The program runs nine weeks, during which students are exposed to every part of starting and running a business – from branding, marketing, the legalities, implementation, and more – by workshop facilitators, people in their community who are successful, knowledgeable, and also look like the kids they are teaching.
The students are also exposed to as many industries as possible so they can not only apply what they learn to multiple verticals but realize the sky is the limit when it comes to their ideas, no matter what neighborhood they come from. This past summer, students explored industries like DJing, engineering hair products, building solar panels, film and media processes, and the capabilities of 3-D printing. The program ends with students pitching their business and getting real life feedback.
This year, students pitched ideas including an organic lipstick company, an app connecting teens with jobs at local businesses, an organic juice company using tech to harvest fruit, a platform to help start-ups to collaborate with one another, and an app to connect students with safe events and activities in their neighborhood. Lip Locker, the organic lipstick company, and Hire Up, the app connecting teens to local jobs, won the pitching competition. Participating students can choose to receive their financial stipend as scholarship money, money for a paid internship with a startup in-network, or choose their prize to be in the form of seed money for their business. If they choose the latter, The Gray Matter Experience provides a three month incubation period where they continue to be mentored to grow and launch the business.
Regardless, all students leave the program with a fully formed business plan and the experience of pitching their business ideas – a truly invaluable experience. "Most of the students that started (The Gray Matter Experience) were very shy and reserved," Robbins admitted. "During the pitch competition that we held, I really got to see them come out of their shells. I was nervous leading up to the event but they got up there and they were poised and polished and presented well. They took their feedback very well and were able to take that and incorporate that back into their businesses." One of the greatest successes for The Gray Matter Experience is "seeing the growth in the students during the time they were in the program."
There is just one other thing Robbins and The Gray Matter Experience insists on and that is the students' businesses must also serve the south and west sides of Chicago – their own communities. Building a sense of community is a priority for Robbins with The Gray Matter Experience because "the more we can create sustainable businesses within our own community, the more we can have that dollar circulating in our community."
Robbins knows her stuff. It's true that studies have shown there is a "lifespan" to the dollar in every community and this lifespan has been researched in different minority communities. Some studies show that for the Asian community, a dollar survives 28 days. In the Jewish community, it's 19 days. While in the African American community, the lifespan of a dollar is six hours, which means African Americans aren't supporting businesses in their own communities. That's because it is difficult to do since African American small business owners only account for 7% of small businesses. But like Robbins stated and The Gray Matter Experience proves, that isn't for lack of desire, but a lack of investment in young African Americans, giving them the resources to start businesses and to show them that it is possible.
The second year of The Gray Matter Experience starts this summer. There will be two cohorts – one in the summer and one in the fall – of roughly 30 kids each, as the program has grown. One way to be a part of helping The Gray Matter Experience succeed is recommending the program to students who fit the qualifications and spreading the word. Robbins is also looking to partner with other organizations for resources for students as they build out their businesses, whether it be coding, marketing, or something else. Finally, as a non-profit in its second year with such important and powerful goals, The Gray Matter Experience is still in the funding phase. The more money Robbins can raise, the more kids they can support, the more businesses that can be created, which will ultimately give back to the community and future African American entrepreneurs.
Robbins added, "I wanted to provide something that was going to be long lasting and sustainable, teaching (the students) concepts that they can take, put in their memory banks, and use it at some point or to actually say, 'Hey, I have all this knowledge. I'm going to go ahead and start this business.'" The Gray Matter Experience proves there are people who want to make a difference and are doing the hard work to get it done. Now, more than ever, programs like these should be supported.