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Still Without Equity: The Power of Ownership and Social Capital

Dear founder: 

Here are a few lessons learned from a Challenging Partnership. Let me preface this by saying that this article is not a subtle dig nor does it reflect any partnerships I am currently engaged in. Now that we have cleared the air, can we talk about it? 

I recently posted an analogy on my social media about being invited to a dinner party where the host never greets you, serves half-cooked food, and then tells you to see yourself out. This scenario mirrors the deceptive partnership that many diverse founders like myself have experienced. The facade of an inviting “opportunity” quickly fell apart, revealing a lack of genuine hospitality and respect. It’s a stark reminder that not all invitations are worth accepting, especially when the host’s intentions are questionable at best.

In entrepreneurship, every season brings its own set of lessons. This one has been particularly enlightening for me in terms of understanding the true power of “ownership” and the critical role of “social capital”. Recent experiences have underscored the importance of both, especially when faced with seemingly promising partnerships that turn out to be exploitative like a peculiar social experiment. Disguised as an opportunity for equity, it became apparent that this was a long-term money grab, exploiting Black talent, culture, and experience. This experience was disheartening but incredibly educational.

Here are the key takeaways:

1. Investigate Thoroughly Before Signing On

Before committing to any partnership, it is essential to delve deeply into the backgrounds, intentions, and track records of potential partners. Asking the tough questions upfront can reveal a lot about what you are getting into. This due diligence is not just about financials but about understanding the ethos and integrity of those involved. I am no longer “ok” with being sold a dream without clear indications and plans to accomplish the dream. The black community in particular can not suffer anymore grass-roots projects at the expense of partnerships meant to strip them of their ownership. 

2. Demand Clear Mutual Investment

A true partnership is built on mutual investment. It's critical to clarify what each party is bringing to the table and ensure that these contributions are equitable. Ambiguities here can lead to misunderstandings and exploitation. Imagine believing you have been invited to the table to contribute meaningfully based on your lived experience, expertise and body of work that closely aligns with the partnership but instead you are not heard and if you are, it’s in part and the details are minimized. The details are often overlooked which often make the difference between success and failure. 

3. Maintain Ownership of Intellectual Property

Intellectual property is the cornerstone of innovation and creativity. It's crucial to protect it fiercely. Any partnership agreement should explicitly state the ownership rights of your intellectual property to prevent any form of exploitation. This was the really big lesson for me as I am constantly creating brand identity around programs and initiatives. I have become equally as good at calling my attorney to file USPTO applications for each new brand we create. When I tell you that ownership costs but how many times do you want to keep losing because you refuse to invest in the long win. Let that sink in. 

4. Be Uncompromising About Intent

The intent behind a partnership should always be transparent and mutually beneficial. If at any point, the intentions become misaligned, it’s necessary to reassess and, if needed, be ready to walk away. The main thing should always remain the main thing.

5. Be Ready to Part Ways

Flexibility and adaptability are key, but so is knowing when to say enough is enough. If the partnership veers off course and becomes misaligned with your core values and goals, it’s okay to part ways. Preservation of integrity and long-term vision is paramount.

Despite the setbacks, this experience has reaffirmed the power of ownership and the importance of social capital. By staying true to these principles, we can safeguard our enterprises and ensure that our collaborations are genuinely constructive. As entrepreneurs, especially diverse founders, our social capital is our network, our reputation, and our influence. Leveraging it wisely is crucial for long-term success and sustainable growth.

Every challenge offers a chance to learn and grow. This season has been a testament to the resilience and fortitude required to navigate the entrepreneurial landscape. I am very clear about why we gather and convene people at VSNWKS. and SEANJMS. and Associates. When gathering BIPOC who are leaders and founders to drive impact there has to be collaboration, innovation, and mutual value exchange and support. Everyday in our companies, organizations we are working to enhance our collective ability to advance our people, causes, and initiative. Now more than ever we NEED partnerships and outcomes that uplift our communities and create lasting change.

Stay tuned for my next article on how to build better communities with integrity where everyone involved can win. 

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