There is a shift happening in America and black women are at the forefront. While the number of black women in leadership continues to rise, spaces where they can learn, create and thrive remain stagnant.
In a city like Chicago that boasts of being one of the top cities for women entrepreneurs, who havenever received more than nine percent of venture funding, it is equally troubling to discover that there are little to no dedicated spaces for black entrepreneurs, or more specifically black women to combat this disparity. Christine Griffith is just the woman to change that.
As the founder of Brown Girl Project (BGP), Griffith is on a mission to launch a co-working space for women of color to fuel their passions as entrepreneurs. Currently in the fundraising stage, BGP was borne out of Griffith’s journey as a professional navigating social circles in Chicago that can sometimes be complicated for someone who is not a member of a Greek letter organization or alumnus of a local high school.
As of 2018, out of4,000 co-working spaces in the United States, less than 60spaces were black-owned. According to Griffith, less than 20 are owned by minority women. On browngirlproject.com, Griffith states, “If you are a successful black or brown woman that has created her own lane, you most likely will have to leave your neighborhoods to do business or find work environments that are comfortable, desirable, or provide the service and amenities necessary.”
“I started to think of the concept of it, right around the time WeWork opened,” said Griffith who previously worked for TimeOut Chicago. “The first time I ever experienced it, we didn’t actually have an office, we had a WeWork space.”
“What was cool about that was we got to vibe with the L.A. team out of this unique, well-thought-out, curated environment that was very much in line with our brand’s personality.”
“But at the same time, it was very much an environment of ‘bros’,”’ said Griffith. “Very male dominated, kegs at five; all which inspires that particular audience to engage the way that they do.”
Griffith says it was her visit to New York when The Wing opened, that provided an eye-opening experience. “I flew to New York to look at their space because I thought that was exactly what I envisioned just from a different cultural standpoint.”
The shift in work style, various work environments, and amount of time spent outside of her own community, fuels Griffith’s desire to create a beautiful space that is not only comfortable for meetings but includes events, a “powder room” that includes showers, and labs for YouTube and podcasting.
“All of my clients are city-based or national where I would meet them somewhere in the city, and that just made me realize that I was spending so much time outside of my own community,” said Griffith. “If I wasn’t at the SoHo House I would be somewhere in Lincoln Park, just trying to find a beautiful space to meet and have conversations and entertain clients. I felt like it was necessary to have something in my own community where I wasn’t constantly doing that; because I’d be spending like hundreds and hundreds of dollars every single month just to be somewhere else.”
Something for Every Woman
Developing a community that not only requires the finances but property to make Brown Girl Project happen is no easy feat. There are also many details that must be considered to ensure that a co-working space like Brown Girl Project is inclusive of all women, especially working mothers.
“As a working mom, I know firsthand the struggles of both raising children while also chasing your personal career dreams,” says Griffith. “Our place will allow for meeting spaces for moms on the fly with kids in tow!”
In the age of people using the phrase “all lives matter” to minimize the efforts of anyone wishing to empower people of color, some may question why this space is being developed specifically for women of color. In the event that someone wants to challenge the inclusivity of Brown Girl Project, Griffith says that all women are welcome but she plans to be very intentional about being in neighborhoods where a resource like BGP is more than needed. “There is nothing divisive about focusing attention and resources around a group of people,” she said. “My concept is about location and catering to women within their own communities.”
The Roosevelt University alumna says that her focus is also primarily on women of color because of her culturally diverse upbringing. “I grew up in an environment in Arizona around predominately Hispanic and Native Americans and we definitely identified as having the same struggles.” Griffith said that while Chicago is unique, it’s also segregated. “We don’t intermingle in the same way, which is odd. But we do in certain settings. It’s interesting.”
Challenges, Risk, and Real Estate
When reflecting on her time as a student at the Art Institute of Chicago and other earlier experiences that have shaped her desire to blaze a new trail in community engagement and real estate, Griffith says that trying to move from the creative lane into a more corporate environment was challenging.
“I was finding that I didn’t have resources to connect with women who could help me figure those things out and give me guidance,” said Griffith. “I think that was ultimately one of the biggest challenges and one of the areas that I think are super important to all people as they’re trying to figure out their careers.”
With any new venture, challenges arise. For Griffith that speed bump, not road block, has been real estate, particularly on the south side of Chicago in Bronzeville, which has become a popular destination for businesses and residents to land. “I would say disappointment is an understatement in terms of Chicago real estate, especially on the south side,” said Griffith. “Because a lot of the land is not even owned by us.”
According to CoworkingResources, a little more than 56 black-owned co-working spaces have been created in the past decade. Research shows that this number will continue to rise but so will the barriers to make the existence of more co-working communities of color a reality.
“I’ll never forget the conversation I was having with a young guy for one of the properties on State and 47th,” said Griffith. “He said to me that ‘Well, your idea seems cool but I know the owner was really trying to hold out for a Dunkin’ Donuts or a McDonald’s.”’
“So, to do something in the community that may actually benefit the community is one of the reasons that he won’t sell the building? So, he’s waiting for some big corporation to take it off his hands? That’s an issue.”
Sherrell Dorsey knows more than a little about the need for spaces like Brown Girl Project. She also understands the immense challengesthat await. In 2018, Dorsey launched, BLKTECH, a 1,200 square-foot incubator for black founders in Charlotte, N.C. The space originally got its start inside hygge, another co-working community with four locations across the Charlotte area. But a year later, the lack of capital funding forced Dorsey and the BLKTECH team to scale back their work in the field and close the physical space.
“The biggest challenge for some of these spaces is long term investment,” said Dorsey. “Co-working spaces operate with thin margins, but many of the black entrepreneurs operating these spaces continue to struggle to find the necessary capital to keep operations in play.”
Former president of the Chicago Association of Realtors, Zeke Morris agrees. Morris says that property owners have to first look at a new tenant or buyer as a stabilizer for the building and determine if the business will be steady enough to pay. “It’s about access to capital,” said Morris. “Even with a good idea, can you repay?”
In some cases, your business plan or history of success as an entrepreneur can carry you through. However, according to Morris, it still boils down to the bottom line. “With business, if people don’t know your track record they have to believe in you philanthropically,” says Morris. “From a business perspective, they need to know over the next five to 10 years, if you can sustain and make money.”
In April, Chicago was ranked as one of the least popularcommercial real estate markets in the world by A Fellowship for International Real Estate (AFIRE). The reason for the low ranking links to the uncertain property taxes.
Senior Director of Governmental Affairs and Public Policy for the Chicago Association of Realtors, Brian Bernadoni says the issue of securing commercial property, for any reason, lies in Chicago’s skyrocketing assessment deals and property taxes. “I think the challenge she is facing in opening a new business is not unique just to the south side, said Bernadoni. “It is an issue that all entrepreneurs face, because property taxes are starting to be as high as rent per square foot.”
“It’s unsustainable,” says Bernadoni. “In Chicago, we have to look at how commercial properties are being assessed.”
Looking into the Future
Looking ahead, Griffith says that fundraising is the main priority for her dream to become a reality. “Right now, we’re in the fundraising stage,” said Griffith. “This is a $2 million effort and more because of us really wanting to also be in the Lawndale area as that growth is starting to happen for people of color.”
The current crowdfunding campaign is housed on ifundwomen, a platform built specifically for early-stage, female entrepreneurs.
“One of the reasons that we thought crowdfunding was necessary is it’s an opportunity for the community to be involved, said Griffith. “It’s not just about them helping me be successful, it’s more of an effort of helping fund something for our community that’s beneficial.”
Griffith also said that supporters should be aware that their contribution will help nurture the dreams and talents of young entrepreneurs. “There’s a lot of really great technology and innovation that we’re putting into the facility aside from just having a facility in our area,” said Griffith. “Because we can see that there are multiple ways that these young people can be inspired by technology and choose their own paths but they just need the resources and the resources have to be available where they are.”
In September, the BGP team has plans to host a private event for people to buy equity in the company. “There are brown girls all over the country who deserve a space in their community.”
Within the next five years, Griffith says that she simply wants to create a place for women of color who share her passion for innovation, to have a place to call home. “My goals for BGP are to be the place that women embrace as their second home and favorite place to be to meet new people, and connect with others from all over the city, country, world.”
“We want to be the leader in co-working space with digital platforms that fosters innovations for and by women.”
The vision to connect brown girls all over the world could very well start with BGP. The ability to connect women of color who are passionate about building together is powerful and holds meaning to many women of color in search of the right place to begin their entrepreneurial journey.