Over the past few months we have been reporting on the Fearless Fund. This is a venture capital fund that seeks out businesses led by women of color and provides pre-seed, seed-level, or Series A financing. As their website states, “Our mission is to bridge the gap in venture capital funding for women of color founders building scalable, growth aggressive companies.”
Our last story on the Fearless Fund ran on 10/30/23, and reported that the Fearless Fund was ordered by the 11th Circuit Court in Atlanta to suspend its Strivers Grant contest which awards $20,000 to small businesses that have at least one woman of color in a leadership role. The court ruled that considering applications only from women of color constitutes racial discrimination.
The lawsuit against the Fearless Fund was brought by the American Alliance for Equal Rights (AAER) which is led by anti-affirmative activist Edward Blum. AAER is the same prominent conservative organization that convinced the Supreme Court to reject affirmative action criteria for college admissions in June 2023.
We are happy to report that the Fearless Fund is fighting back.
An appeal of the ruling has been filed by prominent civil-rights attorney Benjamin Crump, who states simply that the founders of the grant program did not violate the law. “The [AAER] seeks to enjoin a grant and mentorship program designed to ‘bridge the gap in venture capital funding’ that Black women entrepreneurs face as a result of historical discrimination,” said the appeal.
There appears to be a general consensus that the AAER lawsuit is part of a movement against the use of race-based policies in many, or even most aspects of American life, including business. The Fearless Fund became a target because it seeks to address racial and gender inequities in venture funding by investing in businesses founded and run by women of color.
A variety of organizations are lining up to support the Fearless Fund.
On December 14, the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, and fifteen additional civil rights organizations filed an amicus brief in the suit that is currently under review by the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals. The Lawyers’ Committee continues to “…defend remedial philanthropic programs designed to combat longstanding, systemic discrimination and pushes back on claims that such programs constitute unlawful racial discrimination against white business owners under Section 1981 of the Civil Rights Act of 1866…”
The amicus brief argues that [AAER] is “one of multiple speciously-named entities founded by ultra-conservative, anti-civil rights crusader Edward Blum specifically because the Fund operates a grant program to support Black women entrepreneurs”.
Mainstream financial associations also see the lawsuit by AAER as harmful and stand with the Fearless Fund as it appeals the judgement. The website of the American Bankers Association states, “On one side, several financial institutions have perpetuated fraud, leading to economic ruin for many, and some in the industry have condoned the harmful practice of redlining, disproportionately impacting the Black community. On the other side, even modest strides toward equality encounter seemingly insurmountable obstacles.” The Fearless Fund, it says, is “…A vital force in supporting Black women-owned small businesses, providing them a platform for growth and empowerment.”
Institutional Investor agrees. Despite the small size of the Fearless Fund–described as “a minnow”–AAER chose to target the Fearless Fund to stymie any efforts, however small, to redress historical and systemic discrimination because Blum has “…vowed to dismantle affirmative action just about everywhere…” The murder of George Floyd in 2020 led to a “… slew of initiatives aimed at helping bridge the racial inequality gap followed— among them a surge in VC investment in Black entrepreneurs…” Actions like the suit by AAER and its allies have pushed many investment firms to reaffirm their internal processes towards greater inclusion, such as a renewed commitment to DEI programs.
“In the context of historically systemic racism, what the Fearless Fund grant is really trying to do is be a beacon for people who have historically and presently had an uphill battle for funding,” said Von Bryant, an attorney for an alliance of venture capitalists.
With institutional backers like these, who control vast amounts of capital, perhaps the message of discrimination and its deleterious effects on business overall, has–finally–begun making inroads into mainstream thinking.
Providing Some Context
However, the post-George-Floyd enthusiasm for supporting businesses owned by people of color had begun to fade overall, and the Fearless Fund in particular was one potential casualty. Techcrunch reports that, as of June of this year, Mastercard, one of the primary sponsors of the Strivers Grants, had begun to cut funding. A briefing document viewed by Techcrunch noted that Mastercard cut funding to the program after the organization initially made a five-year pledge to give money to Black founders. According to the document, Mastercard was “no longer passionate about the original cause.”
There are two ways of dealing with the uptick of lawsuits against diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) programs since affirmative action was struck down by the Supreme Court in June. It basically comes down to fight or flight: Companies and organizations can either change the wording, so that their programs intended to help level a very uneven playing field are open to people already benefiting from social inequity, or they can stand their ground.
President Ayanna Khan of the Delaware Black Chamber of Commerce, like other Black Chamber leaders, is not about to water down her organization’s mission. “We have to stand,” Khan told Technical.ly. “Literally stand our ground and support underrepresented entrepreneurs. We have to do that. It’s our role and our responsibility to promote diversity in the business world.”
In assessing the situation, the Atlanta Business Chronicle said “The lawsuit [against the Fearless Fund] appears to be part of a larger campaign to eliminate race-based policies in other aspects of American life, including business.” In addition, America First Legal (AFL) brags on its website that it filed a brief in the 11th Circuit in support of the lawsuit filed by AAER.
Taking down the Fearless Fund and other such organizations will have obvious and unpleasant real-world consequences. Just this year, Arion Long and her company Femly won a $150,000 investment from the Fearless Fund. In August Long pitched the company, an organic period care brand, at a demo day during the Fearless Fund Venture Capital Summit held in Atlanta, GA. As a result, Long announced that her company has taken another big step toward “scaling the future of restroom feminine care access.” She continued, “After I presented I was requested back on stage for a standing ovation. It’s safe to [say] we’re on cloud nine until further notice.”
Unfortunately, the euphoria may be endangered.
The lawsuit against the Fearless Fund will largely impact financial assistance given to businesses, but this is only one aspect of a much greater problem in the greater context of . As noted above, conservative activists like Blum at AAER want to dismantle most, if not all assistance that seeks to help women of color.
One example of this expanded range of attack is The Abundant Birth Project. Launched in 2021 in San Francisco study the health impacts of providing supplemental income to mothers during pregnancy and for six months postpartum.
“For so long, Black women have been excluded from the resources needed to have safe and healthy pregnancies. This funding will provide pregnant people with economic stability during this critical phase in their lives,” Dr. Zea Malawa, director of Expecting Justice, said in a statement.
The Californians for Equal Rights Foundation and the Dallas-based American Civil Rights Project are suing based on a claim that the Abundant Birth Project violates the Civil Rights Act of 1964 by providing funds exclusively to women of color.
For the full story about The Abundant Birth Project: https://seattlemedium.com/is-helping-black-moms-out-financially-unconstitutional/
Beyond that, the Institute on Religion and Democracy (IRD) recently decried efforts by the Biden Administration to enforce discrimination due to sexual orientation and gender identity (SOGI). A proposed rule change inserts specific language to safeguard against such discrimination in the federal grant making process while specific language about religious liberty is omitted. IRD claims this will somehow weaken the right of religious groups to discriminate against LGBTQI+ which the Supreme Court granted to individuals for religious reasons in the ruling on 303 Creative LLC vs Elenis.
For the full story of the IRD: