Two women facing each other in front of a crib with three baby dolls.
Telisha Woodfin (left) is one of several Richmond-based business owners working with Elsie Harper-Anderson, Ph.D., an associate professor at the L. Douglas Wilder School of Government and Public Affairs, (right) on how to address the challenges she faces as a business owner. (Photo by David Slipher, L. Douglas Wilder School of Government and Public Affairs at VCU)

Professor’s project aims to grow equity, opportunity for entrepreneurs in former ‘Black Wall Street of the South’

Elsie Harper-Anderson, an associate professor in the Wilder School of Government and Public Affairs at VCU, is advancing Richmond as a national model for entrepreneurial study and investment.

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When Elsie Harper-Anderson, Ph.D., thinks about the economics of equitable entrepreneurship, her focus extends beyond economic statistics on equality in urban labor markets.She’s recognized a growing need to reach beyond the numbers and uplift voices by capturing a new type of data — the intersection of the everyday lived experience and the journey of entrepreneurship. What are their day-to-day lives like? What are the unique factors impacting their success? What are their perceptions and concerns within the local business environment?

These questions are leading Harper-Anderson, an associate professor at the L. Douglas Wilder School of Government and Public Affairs at VCU, down an uncharted path examining the unique challenges of entrepreneurs with a focus on underrepresented minority business owners. These entrepreneurs face statistically greater barriers to entry, lower sales, fewer employees and disproportionately higher closing rates than their white counterparts.

Taking the pulse of an entrepreneurial ecosystem

To Harper-Anderson, entrepreneurship can be a powerful and essential tool for reducing economic and social disparities. But the intended social uplift is often weighed down through the many pervasive factors that systemically perpetuate inequalities. She’s interested in gaining a better perspective of how these collective challenges contour the overall “entrepreneurial ecosystem.”

“This study is critical because it includes input from many actors in the ecosystem to get at the mechanisms that create and perpetuate inequality,” said Harper-Anderson, who also serves as director of the Ph.D. in Public Policy and Administration program at the Wilder School. “It moves beyond long-held assumptions by prioritizing the voices of the entrepreneurs to detail their actual experiences. Uplifting the voices of underrepresented and often ignored entrepreneurs will shine light on their unique needs resulting in informed policy and resource allocation decisions.”

With funding from a Community Engaged Entrepreneurship Grant from the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation and in alignment with the goals of the Wilder School Research Institute for Social Equity, Harper-Anderson is unpacking the Richmond entrepreneurial ecosystem. She’s examining the intersection of race, ecosystems, social networks and other variables and the ways in which these factors impact an entrepreneur’s success.

Capturing and elevating entrepreneurial voices

Her research participants are 40 Richmond-area-based entrepreneurs, a diverse makeup of 50% Black, 35% white and 10% Latinx business owners. Through weekly participant journals and bi-monthly interviews, she’ll spend a year following each business owner. The minority business owners’ responses will be compared to those of their white counterparts, to gain clearer insight into access and inclusion disparities that impact each group's decisions and outcomes.

Participants will answer weekly questions about the strategies they employ to grow their business, the challenges or barriers they face and any personal life factors affecting their work, and they will rank their perceptions of success on a 1-5 scale.

“Open-ended reflections enable us to go beyond the findings of most traditional entrepreneurship studies,” she said. “In the entrepreneur’s reflection, we can pick up on patterns and nuances that may be lost in translation otherwise. Results thus far are already revealing issues and intersections that are not widely discussed in the literature and some that are unique to this time and economic, geographic and political space.”

Two women sitting next to each other. The woman on the left is sitting at a table with a laptop and is holding a baby doll.
Telisha Woodfin, founder and owner of family and doula support agency LIVLoved, is one of several Richmond-based business owners working with Elsie Harper-Anderson, Ph.D., (right) on how to address the challenges she faces as a business owner. Since working with Harper-Anderson, "I've been more intentional about my goals," Woodfin said. (Photo by David Slipher, L. Douglas Wilder School of Government and Public Affairs at VCU)

With her team, Harper-Anderson will synthesize and share findings with the participants at six-month intervals. Study participants will also have the opportunity to share their perspectives on emerging themes and help craft interview questions for other key stakeholders in the ecosystem.

“Economic development scholars and practitioners have embraced the ecosystem framework to think about how the actors, institutions, policies and culture come together to create the environment in which entrepreneurs operate,” Harper-Anderson said. “Taking a holistic view of the entrepreneur’s context and how they maneuver through it will help identify critical opportunities to influence policy intervention.”

An informed future for entrepreneurial policymaking

The larger aim of the research is to help create a strong case for current future investment and support for disadvantaged entrepreneurs, in Richmond and beyond. Harper-Anderson wants to inform policymakers not just through numbers but by connecting on a personal level.

Combining macroeconomic data alongside direct experiences is a new approach she hopes will help open ears and invigorate action to help remove barriers for entrepreneurs. Richmond’s Jackson Ward, once home to “Black Wall Street,” one of the most thriving Black communities in the country, suffered decades of racist and systematic displacement and destruction.

The financial crisis of 2008 and the COVID-19 pandemic further cleaved the economic capital of Black and Latinx business owners. Harper-Anderson’s previous research confirmed that the hardships of economic crises disproportionately impact minority groups and, further, that legislation aimed at recovery is less impactful to these groups.

Her early findings about the pandemic’s impact on Black business owners informed  a chapter in her forthcoming edited volume, co-edited with Wilder School Dean Susan Gooden, Ph.D., and professor Jay Albanese, Ph.D., titled “Racial Equity, COVID, and Public Policy: The Triple Pandemic.” Harper-Anderson and Nathan Teklemariam, who completed his Ph.D. in public policy and administration at the Wilder School, explain how — through the CARES Act — Black businesses had a more difficult time accessing funds from the Payroll Protection Program funds due to the way the legislation was written. In many cases, preexisting systematic inequalities in banking relationships dictated the distribution of funds. The findings stemmed from Harper-Anderson’s COVID-19 Rapid Research Funding Opportunity-funded project, funded by the VCU Office of the Vice President for Research and Innovation and the C. Kenneth and Dianne Wright Center for Clinical and Translational Research, in 2020.

Today, while more than half of Richmond’s population is either Black (44.8%) or Hispanic (7%), only 11% of entrepreneurs are minorities, according to U.S. census data. Further, the city’s poverty rate is now 25%.

“Richmond holds a unique place in the economic history of Black Americans,” Harper-Anderson said. “As former home to the Confederacy and also the Black Wall Street of the South, the city has been on both sides of the Black economic pendulum, leading to embedded structures of systemic inequality alongside a deep seated Black entrepreneurial spirit.”