BofA backs Cornell entrepreneurship program for women of color

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Bank of America thinks fostering more women entrepreneurs will help close the racial wealth gap in the United States.

BofA and Cornell University plan to expand an online training program the Ivy League school has offered for free to thousands of would-be entrepreneurs, most of whom are women of color. The Bank of America Institute for Women’s Entrepreneurship at Cornell will add another 30,000 participants over the next three years, using part of the bank’s $1 billion commitment to advance racial and economic equality.

Bank of America would not say how much it contributed to the program. The grant is earmarked for teaching, technical support and a new Spanish language course intended to help it reach more communities.

“We wanted to bring something on board that would really bring things to scale,” said Rena De Sisto, global executive for arts and culture and women’s programs at Bank of America. “We’re a huge company, and we wanted to make some investments that would reach lots of women.”

The Charlotte, N.C., company was one of many large banks to announce big-dollar racial justice commitments when protests erupted this summer over the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery. U.S. Bancorp, JPMorgan Chase, PNC Financial Services Group and others are backing a variety of causes that usually include some form of support for small businesses or entrepreneurship.

“We’re a huge company, and we wanted to make some investments that would reach lots of women,” says Rena De Sisto, global executive for arts and culture and women’s programs at Bank of America.

Some experts say that encouraging entrepreneurship has its limits as a means of addressing the racial wealth gap in the U.S., pointing out that white Americans have largely built wealth via homeownership and retirement savings.

But many academics, bankers and entrepreneurs contend that business ownership can still be an important part of the bigger picture. For some, it may offer greater advancement than a person of color might find in a predominantly white workplace. And it can have a multiplier effect in underserved communities when a business owner can scale up and hire staff.

“There’s a really deep legacy of entrepreneurship within the African American community,” said Fila Antwine, a Queens, N.Y., life coach who completed the program last year.

Antwine said that the program helped her to address some challenges she had experienced in marketing her services and targeting the kind of clients she wanted. Currently a solo operator, Antwine said she hopes to soon hire staff to help handle the increased business.

“I was able to bring in more sales and also see more profit,” she said. “I wasn’t wasting as much money on the wrong marketing tools.”

Enrollees in the Cornell program learn about negotiation, product development, legal basics and marketing. Cohorts of 100 to 150 are staggered every two weeks to keep class sizes manageable, De Sisto said.

Those who complete the program receive a certificate of women’s entrepreneurship. Currently, 20,000 people are enrolled in the program, and 2,300 have so far completed it. Bank of America said that 86% of those participants are women of color.

Bank of America had not previously done much marketing for the program, De Sisto said. This time, the company will partner with several nonprofits to get the word out, including the National Urban League, the U.S. Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, the National Association for Latino Community Asset Builders and Prospera.

“While we’ve had very good success in enrolling women of color, we wanted to make sure that we had these partnerships in place to ensure that would continue and grow,” she said. “Anything that is going to connect people to economic success, and particularly people of color, during this time is relevant to that $1 billion commitment.”

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