In 2017, Paul Hawken published a book (Drawdown) compiling a set of concrete actions people could take to combat climate change. Inspired by this, Seth Bannon, founding partner at Fifty Years, a firm that provides seed funding for companies aiming to make the world a better place, decided to do something similar to address systemic racism, and the Racial Inequity Drawdown was born.
Today, the company is revealing this document to the world and “open sourcing” it with the goal of making the framework part of the conversation to address racial inequity in startup investing and in the broader world.
Bannon, like many people, was looking for ways to better understand the impact of racism in the wake of George Floyd’s murder last year. He began to think about it, much like climate change, as a huge, multidimensional set of problems. He wanted to understand the scope of these problems to use his investment capital to help address some of these issues.
“So we incubated the Racial Inequity Drawdown at Fifty Years and the reason we did is because we got excited about finding and funding companies that addressed racial inequity in the same way we do the climate crisis or disease or all these other things — and it’s really hard because it’s such a multidimensional issue,” he said.
As a starting point, he decided to create a document similar to “Drawdown” that looked at these issues in a single place to help him and his firm understand the scope of the problem, and to help them look at their investments through a racial equity lens.
“We started to pull together resources just for ourselves, so that we could have racial equity be a lens that we use for our own investing and we were like, ‘Oh my God, there’s a lot here.’ ”
That led to one of the company’s fellows taking ownership of the project, with the goal of fleshing out a comprehensive document. The resulting framework is built on three pillars or broad sets of categories, including Health & Wellbeing, Equality of Opportunity and Sustainable Systems, with each pillar including different elements of the racial inequity problem that need to be addressed. And each sub-category includes a detailed definition of the problem, key terms, a set of companies and organizations currently working on the issue and what still needs to be done (perhaps openings for startup ideas).
To make it more than a document created in-house, Bannon and his team wanted to take it a step further, so he brought in a group of college students to begin reaching out to communities of color to participate in this initiative and bring it to life.
One of those students is Elizabeth Poku, a rising sophomore at Princeton, who said she was drawn to the project as a way to flip the script on racism. “What I hope to do in the future is really hijack existing systems and structures that used to put down and oppress people and make sure we’re changing those narratives, changing those systems to really work for those that they were putting down,” she explained.
She saw Racial Inequity Drawdown as a way to help to do this and joined the team, helping to write some sections of the document, including the one on the impact of lack of access to healthcare on people of color. She says that the team then reached out to communities working on the problem and began to compile resources into a database, including startups that have been working to solve the different elements documented in the framework.
Bannon says that investors who want to build racial equity as a lens into their investment process can use this document as a guide, and it also acts as a signal that a firm cares about this as it allocates resources to different startups, certainly that’s the case for Fifty Years.
“Part of this for us was just defining what that means, and now we have a really great start here. And then second is letting entrepreneurs know that we care about racial equity as a lens, and that if you are addressing racial equity, that’s going to be a big plus in our book.”
He added, “Obviously, that doesn’t mean we’re definitely going to be able to fund you, but that’s going to be a big plus, and we’re excited about that and attacking racial inequity through technology and entrepreneurship.”
The firm sees today’s launch as a starting point, one that others can build on and add to the conversation, and build on this initial framework. At the same time, it gives members of the startup ecosystem, whether that’s entrepreneurs or investors, a way to start looking at their investments or projects through this racial equity lens.
“We really want to make this drawdown start the conversation and make sure this is at the forefront of people’s minds. That’s our main goal. So yes, if that includes helping community members really find out how they can [help] these startups get into the tech world, that’s definitely part of our mission,” Poku explained.