Monti Hill, a power-builder in WEPOWER’s inaugural Education Power-Building Academy in North St. Louis city, pictured here on Natural Bridge Road near her home // Photo by Kristen Trudo
On reading out loud.
One afternoon in grade school my teacher made up a new rule: each student must finish reading a section aloud from their book before leaving the classroom that day. I couldn’t make it through a page. I was stuttering so badly. Then to add to my embarrassment, I caused my classmates to miss their bus.
Even though I never thought that I would be able to go to college, I was still active in high school. I was involved in the fun things that came easy to me — clubs, accelerated science, art. My mom entered me in a lot of art contests. I would draw and doodle. The opportunity to be creative drew my attention.
I didn’t recognize it at the time like I do now, but my mom was encouraging me to create vision boards. She allowed me the space to imagine things at home — to create visions about my future in a way I couldn’t at school.
The academic piece — especially reading heavy classes — was another story. I didn’t focus on it. There was no support at my school for students that felt lost or couldn’t articulate what they needed. No one was pushing or challenging me in those spaces. No one was there telling me it was okay to read, okay to practice — that it could be fun!
And so when high school ended, I didn’t enroll in college — didn’t do anything. Then three days before the school year started, my mom took me by bus to a community college. She was very emotional. She knew that my friends were going to school, and she wondered what I was gonna do. It was one of those moments where she didn’t know what she should do, but she knew to tell me, “Community college is one option.” The other one was to get a job. So I enrolled.
Years of not being challenged in high school left a lasting mark; I couldn’t read a book. I thought to myself, “Where were the teachers and support staff all those years in school?” And I’m not even blaming them — but I hadn’t been taught how to challenge myself.
In community college I was on my own. I thought, “I’m grown as hell, and I don’t know what to do.” I saw where other folks were, and where I wanted to be. But I couldn’t get there unless I went through the process. I knew that process included going to classes and reading in front of people. I saw reading as a barrier — but if I didn’t attempt to get over it, I was going to stay stuck.
So I signed myself up for all of these remedial classes. After a year in community college, I transferred to Prairie View A&M University. There I completed additional remedial classes. All throughout college I would go to the bleachers and read out loud. That’s how I started to learn words. The process inspired me.
These days, during WEPOWER trainings, Charli has us read worksheets and quotes aloud to one another. The other day one of us misread a word, and we all giggled — not in judgement — but in comfort. We’re really close with one another, having spent two days a month together since April, learning and growing. The care-free space allows us to not get stuck on small embarrassments. It’s necessary to create spaces where our backgrounds are not hidden and our abilities are celebrated — where we build confidence and self-esteem in one another. This needs to happen more often in our public schools — but also in our political organizing spaces.
Monti Hill, on her front porch // Photo by Kristen Trudo
On improving public education.
I want to improve public education for the voices that are not being heard. I wish I had had access to some type of guidance or mentorship — or even tools for my mom to better know how to support me. That’s why I worked as a case manager at Roosevelt High School for three years. Students shouldn’t feel alone in the fight for their education. I worked really hard to be the person that I needed when I was in school. I think people are more aware of inequities now, but in our communities, people don’t really have time to focus on their child’s education like privileged people do.
I feel like I’ve come so far, and I know that many people have been through the same thing. When I think about improved public education, I think about how self-esteem might be impacted in certain communities. I think when people feel good and confident about what they’re learning and doing, they’re more forward. When people feel ashamed, they don’t speak up in spaces. When a child who knows how to play the piano or violin or read at an advanced level, there’s something going on there. It’s self-esteem building.
When I think about a future with improved public education, I think about young people who care about what’s going on in their space — and who urgently want more for their community. I want a world where youth aren’t forced to leave their communities. Instead they could come back into their own and work — come back and continue to improve it.
Today I work on campaigns and continue designing through the name Black + Brown. I see a future for myself and a future for the region in supporting progressive candidates. I worked on Tishaura Jones’ campaign. Then I worked on a shoestring budget getting Jason Wilson elected to the school board. On that campaign I learned how to write, communicate with constituents on social media, and develop websites. Winning that campaign solidified my belief that our dream of widespread progressive Black and Brown elected leadership is possible.
On daring to create.
I think I have the ability to empower other people. And to guide them in the right direction. I used these skills when I was a case manager, but I am thinking that maybe I don’t use them enough for myself. For example, I really want to support Black and Brown political candidates and get their names out there. But I’ve also begun to ask myself a question: “Am I just trying to amplify their narrative? Or is it something that I want to do for myself, too?” I’m not sure. I don’t think I have appreciated me enough.
So I joined WEPOWER because it encourages us to think creatively with what we have. What brought me in was knowing that Black and Brown people created it. We are already doing things in our home, in our community, and in how we talk to people. Once we can identify the root illness as systemic oppression, we can move past the idea that we cannot change certain things. Many of us feel like we can’t have businesses in our space — or have roundtable discussions in our community. We don’t imagine that we can do it — but we can!
I’m currently leading outreach efforts with a congressional campaign in Southern Illinois. We’re trying to flip the district blue! I work with community leaders and established groups to host roundtable discussions on local issues and build energy for change.
I think when you begin to understand your story, you can work to empower people around you. Like in politics, I’ve come to believe that I have to be spot on with a lot of things, but I’m not perfect. In fast-paced campaigns there is no extra time. I need to be on-point all the time. Campaigns are full of young, mostly white professionals, so it’s assumed that reading just came through schooling. I hear co-workers talk about their education — AP Government, AP Political Science, AP English. Those were not part of my experience. I’m over here battling with “Did I spell that word correctly?” or “Am I saying that word correctly?” So I get nervous in these spaces. I worry that people will notice when I take too long to read or complete reading-heavy tasks. I come into work early and stay late to make due.
In this city everybody knows everybody, and I’m over here still trying to discover Monti. But through storytelling I’ve realized that I’ve come so far. This self-recognition helps me when I’m in uncomfortable spaces.
Bijal Desai-Ramirez, WEPOWER VP of Entrepreneurship & Investments, at Love Bank Park. Photo by Kristen Trudo
On the entrepreneurial landscape.
There is a wealth of research that acknowledges how diversity—when valued and leveraged—can drive innovation. This has not only been proven in traditional organizational settings but also in startups. Diverse minds represent diverse ideas, whether they come from entrepreneurs themselves or diverse teams. They generate ideas that others may not recognize as opportunities, and solve some of our community’s greatest challenges.
Yet, we regularly hear stats that clearly suggest that black, brown, female, and other entrepreneurs are consistently being overlooked, underestimated, and undervalued. Not only are entrepreneurs left out of the startup ecosystem, but investors are also leaving money on the table.
WEPOWER is focusing on community-based entrepreneurs, who are often isolated from the mainstream economy and traditional startup ecosystem. I’ve had numerous conversations both locally and nationally to locate the gaps in how we—all of us—support community-based entrepreneurs and to ask: Which of these gaps would be most effective to address at the local level? What about at the national level?
In St. Louis, for example, there seems to be a huge cliff between the entrepreneurial stages of early ideation and acceleration. It’s often at this point where some people count themselves out and others can’t find the support they need—financial or otherwise—to move through early proof points. I’ve also heard in several conversations and from many different directions that there is interest in making the startup community more equitable and inclusive. But this intention cannot manifest by simply tinkering with what is already available on a small scale. We urgently need to make space for people, ideas, and ventures!
So now I’m part of a team talking stock of the pipeline and determining where WEPOWER can be most supportive. We’re talking with like-minded folks throughout community to connect our work. But we’re also having national conversations with leaders in more inclusive ecosystems, and thought leaders around the country developing new programs and investment models. We’re building as we go. Rather than asking community-based entrepreneurs to assimilate to the world of traditional incubators and accelerators, we’re working on redesigning what programs look like, the ways that ideas are evaluated, how investment decisions and investments are made… all of it! We’re building with the dual goal of supporting entrepreneurs in community and connecting them to the traditional ecosystem. Otherwise they remain isolated.
On valuing our ideas.
A while back, I was sitting on an panel for an event, and the moderator posed a question to the group: how did you know you were ready to leave your full-time day job and take the leap of being a full-fledged entrepreneur?
One by one, each of the other panelists explained how they couldn’t not do it, or that they felt confident in themselves and their ideas when they took the leap. At first, I became uncomfortable because I knew that wasn’t my truth. But then I because nervous because I knew that I had a responsibility to share that.
My experience had not been as straightforward.
When I left my role as ED of Education Innovation at UMSL, I intended to launch my own startup. I had an idea that was needed and aligned with growing demographic trends, a scalable vision, long-term exit opportunities, an MBA and some related experience, and connections with entrepreneur support organizations based on my work at UMSL. A lot of people I’d spoken with, including people in the target demographic and highly successful entrepreneurs, could see the potential.
Still, I wasn’t sure if I had what it takes to be an entrepreneur. I didn’t recognize these things. I focused on all of the experience I didn’t have, I heard the voices of all of the people who didn’t get the idea, who thought it was “niche,” and who just didn’t get the pain points I sought to solve were not already addressed, much less real. So instead of betting on myself, I bet on an another venture that seemed more viable.
What happened in the process is that I learned that I do have what it takes, and I made measurable contributions as a partner at that venture that no one else on our team could have made. I’ve spent a lot of my career on strategy and bringing other people’s visions to fruition, and I’ve since come to realize that my self-doubt and lack of confidence were pretty common for many female entrepreneurs and entrepreneurs of color. You spend so much time getting questioned that it’s easy to internalize.
I’m in a different place now. I am daring more boldly. I accept that I’m someone who thinks differently and does things differently. Using that, I can create things for and with people. It’s embracing that you’re the “divergent thinker” that everyone claims they’re looking for, rather than feeling bad about never fitting in anywhere.
Today, I want us to give a more nuanced perspective on panels or elsewhere. The dominant narrative place success out of reach for so many people whose stories don’t fit the mold. I want to have real conversations.
On addressing isolation.
Others may already be daring boldly and dreaming big but lack power and access to support.
There's this false idea that the best ideas will rise to the top. But we know that's false because implicit and explicit bias often narrow the field before certain ideas have the chance to leave the gate.
If community-based entrepreneurs are currently isolated from the mainstream economy and traditional entrepreneurial ecosystem, we need a way to both prepare them for the entrepreneurial journey effectively AND to build bridges to connect them to the systems that exist. At the same time, we need to make space at the tables for when they arrive.
On the venture capital and investment side, some VC firms intimated that they have heard their own well-meaning investors categorize minority-founded business as small businesses, lifestyle businesses, or even “charity” when the ideas and ventures in fact have high growth potential. But I think that’s because these rooms are often full of people who are not familiar with the needs that our businesses are responding to. Our ideas are often not recognized as an opportunity.
At the same time, some community-based entrepreneurs see themselves as small business owners and don’t understand the scalability of their idea or venture. Others do envision scaling yet don’t know how to navigate the ecosystem. Still others see their endeavors as a “side hustle,” and don’t quite know when to take the leap—either because they lack confidence, financial security, connections, or other resources.
So isolation can come from both sides, and these are just a few examples of how.
But the fact remains that, by and large, the majority of entrepreneurial programs are graduating few entrepreneurs of color. In 2017, VCs invested $84 billion into startups—but only 0.2% flowed to companies led by black women. In 2010, 1% went to companies led by black founders.
But we hold so much that is often overlooked! Minority businesses could boost the economy by as much as $300 billion, according to the Center for Global Policy Solutions. So this work isn’t just for the benefit of entrepreneurs. Or their communities. Or the investors. It’s for the benefit of everyone.
We must ask: How we are preparing community-based entrepreneurs? Is it in a way that's effective for them? We must look at how we judge ideas—how we evaluate them. Who's giving feedback? Who’s determining what’s financed? Is it who the products and services are for?
We must reimagine and rethink how we can all better engage, support, accelerate, and fund the ideas of community-based entrepreneurs. Together, we can change the story of how black and brown innovators are overlooked and underestimated, and how the intrinsic value they bring remains untapped. We can build up the communities that we live and work in. When we take action towards this, we flourish!
I loved being part of a fast-paced startup. I like building and designing things from scratch—seeing the big-picture and figuring out how we knit it together. But I also realize that I am really mission-driven.
Prior to my startup experience, I was in nonprofit, but I don’t necessarily feel like I’m coming back to the “nonprofit sector.” I feel like a social entrepreneur, and I’m excited to be working with a team of other amazing social entrepreneurs led by Charli.
We’re driven by the belief that everyone should matter, and the fact that the world does not treat us in this way. That motivates us to act relentlessly and with urgency.
To realize this dream of equity we’re going to need to be disruptive—we’re going to need to imagine and invest in scalable ventures that build economic power in our communities. The first step in this process is to build up the confidence to imagine ourselves having that much impact.
Learn more about Bijal's role as VP with WEPOWER: