Tagan Horton caught the entrepreneurial bug while studying international development at Spelman College.
The Decatur, Ga., native had explored many career paths, including politics and the nonprofit world, and had interned at UNICEF, studied international policy for a summer at Princeton and traveled to Ghana with an NGO to build compost toilets.
It’s a journey that ultimately landed her in Cleveland, working within Northeast Ohio’s growing entrepreneurial ecosystem and with organizations such as JumpStart, KeyBank and Venture For America, all of which also have a commitment to diversifying the startup world.
During her junior year of college, Horton traveled to Senegal and worked with a rotating savings and credit association (ROSCA) featuring over 200 women entrepreneurs.
She interviewed the women and created digital media from their stories that was translated into both English and French, which helped increase their presence and impact.
“I wasn’t able to accomplish everything I wanted to due to limitations,” Horton says. “That made me realize I really care about solving problems, and entrepreneurship could be the route by which I could do that.”
Energized, she came back from the trip and ended up entering and placing as second runner-up in the Spelpreneur Start-Up Competition. From there, she applied to be a fellow at Venture For America (VFA), which brought her to Northeast Ohio and a job as an account manager at the digital ticketing company Groupmatics.
Horton’s varied interests and entrepreneurial background made her an ideal candidate for Venture For America, which places talented college graduates in two-year fellowships at startups across 14 U.S. cities.
“Our mission is to create economic opportunity in American cities where there are emerging entrepreneurial ecosystems,” said Carrie Murphy, senior director of community partnerships at Venture For America.
“We’re doing that by trying to mobilize the next generation of entrepreneurs and equipping them with the skills and resources they need to build companies and create jobs.”
Venture For America has operated in the Cleveland market since 2013 and placed 25 fellows in the city last year, making it the second-largest cohort in the U.S. behind only Detroit.
A COMMITMENT TO DIVERSITY
In recent years, Venture For America has made it a priority to have diverse classes of fellows.
According to Murphy, 52% of the incoming 2020 fellows identify as women, while 53% identify as a racial or ethnic minority.
These demographics represent greater diversity than is evident in the startup world overall.
A 2019 RateMyInvestor and DiversityVC report comprising a poll of over 10,000 venture-backed founders and an analysis of publicly available venture-backed deals found 77.1% of these founders were white.
Younger generations entering the workforce are more diverse than this, says Gloria Ware, director of the KeyBank Center for Technology, Innovation and Inclusive Growth, which makes diversifying the tech space an imperative.
“We need to make sure that we are appealing to — and attractive to — this new group of diverse talent.”
From an operations standpoint, diversity also gives companies a distinct edge.
“Companies that have diverse talent are more change-ready — they’re two times more change ready — and they have significantly more cash flow,” Ware says. “They are 35% more likely to outperform companies that aren’t diverse.”
Plus, people who are “coming from different backgrounds and different experiences have insights that other people don’t in more homogenous cultures,” she adds.
“You’re going to have a competitive edge; you’re getting new and different information and insights.”
BUILDING AND BOOSTING THE PIPELINE
Locally, the KeyBank Business Boost & Build (BBB) program — of which the KeyBank Center for Technology, Innovation and Inclusive Growth is a part — has funded an initiative that aims to increase the number of Northeast Ohio Venture For America fellows who are women or people of color.
Ware says this initiative has involved understanding the barriers that potential fellowship recipients might face and then coming up with solutions. For example, they’ve funded candidate trips to Venture For America job fairs and worked to develop their interview preparedness.
This kind of support continues once fellows are hired, Ware adds, as they have opportunities to engage and interact with their Venture For America peers and also explore the city’s neighborhoods.
Ware also has been proactive about engaging various local leaders at the Hispanic Business Center, The Presidents’ Council and ECDI in order to raise awareness of and advocate for Venture For America.
The goal is for job fairs to feature more companies led by women, Black and Latina business owners who are looking to hire Venture For America fellows.
“If we have more companies that are part of what they call the match process — matching fellows to companies — then we feel like we can convince them more fellows of color or women fellows to come to Ohio,” Ware says.
“Then they can have more success getting hired — and then more success at the company.”
All of these pipeline-building initiatives also support Venture For America’s mission to help fellows put down roots in their respective cities.
A SUPPORTIVE NEO ENTREPRENEURIAL ENVIRONMENT
Horton, for one, has thrived in this supportive entrepreneurial environment and embraced leadership opportunities within the organization and in Cleveland.
She’s now the co-lead of the Venture For America Black affinity group build21, and the entrepreneurship lead for the local branch of the organization’s Community Leadership Council.
Outside of her day job, Horton has also launched her own digital marketing business and has started working with JumpStart to help grow another business, Founders Get Funds.
The latter is an online savings club for beauty founders based on the ROSCA peer-to-peer funding model she saw entrepreneurs embrace in Senegal.
Gaining enough experience to expand her footprint and grow both businesses is next on her list, she adds. “Building that team is something that is important to me right now, so that I can take these insights that I’m gaining and (go) as far as I can.”
This article originally appeared in Crain’s Cleveland Business on July 9, 2020