Kelly Ifill was raised in an entrepreneurial Caribbean household in Brooklyn. Her grandmother ran a cleaning business, her uncle and cousins had a contracting company, and her aunt operated a landscaping enterprise. “You look at the tapestry of small businesses in America, and it almost mirrors the systems that my family has started. That’s the stock that I come from,” Ifill says. Like her family members, Ifill was determined to build something that she was passionate about, and that fulfilled the needs of fellow business owners.
In 2021, she launched Guava, a digital banking app for new entrepreneurs that allows them to access funding and connect to a community of fellow business owners. By assisting creators who have been shut out of traditional banking models, companies like Guava are slowly reshaping the field of financial technology, better known as fintech.
Over the past few years, fintech has rapidly become an undeniable part of our daily lives, from paperless payment apps like Venmo, Cash App, and PayPal to mobile banking apps, transit passes, and even ticket purchases for Broadway shows. It’s a lucrative industry, but in order for it to become an equitable one, people like Ifill—start-up founders from traditionally underrepresented backgrounds—need access to the funding necessary to scale and advance their businesses.
“We know that underrepresented founders received less than 2 percent of all venture capital globally last year,” says Sabrina Tharani, vice president, global startup and venture partnerships at Mastercard. “Black women founders, in particular, received even less.” In the first half of 2021, Black founders received $1.8 billion in funding, which represents just 1.2 percent of the $147 billion raised for all start-ups.
In 2021, Mastercard launched the Start Path In Solidarity program—an extension of its nearly decade-long start-up engagement program—to help boost those numbers. As part of the program, start-up founders from underrepresented backgrounds receive enterprise partnership readiness training, a dedicated mentor, as well as introductions to investors and Mastercard customers and partners. They also get the opportunity to collaborate with Mastercard on technology, apply for grants and investments, and pitch their solutions to prospects. Ifill and the two other founders featured below are inaugural members of the program, which is part of Mastercard’s $500 million In Solidarity commitment to help close the racial wealth and opportunity gap.
A majority of the Start Path cohort are not novices to entrepreneurship. Like Ifill, they filled out all the necessary applications, attended all the business classes they were advised to, and raised funds before reaching out to investors. But for many of them, the extra boost that Start Path provides—and the community of entrepreneurship it fosters—can be the critical ingredient that gets their businesses off the ground.
“Feeling seen might be a soft qualitative measure, but for entrepreneurs who are committed to their businesses, the acknowledgment of being seen, being understood, and being served is very powerful,” says Salah Goss, Mastercard’s senior vice president for social impact at the Center for Inclusive Growth.
Founder & CEO, GUAVA
Founder & CEO, GUAVA
Despite this continued growth, Kelly Ifill recognizes that Black entrepreneurs are disproportionately denied financial products, whether a line of credit or a traditional small or medium-size business (SMB) loan. “Historically, the banking system in the U.S. hasn’t seen the correct value in Black businesses,” Ifill says. “Guava is serving as an alternative to potential predatory service providers for entrepreneurs who have not had the best access to secure banks.”
What separates the app from similar resources is its community-first focus that seamlessly allows entrepreneurs across industries the opportunity to connect and collaborate. It’s built on an open forum, similar to the interface of Facebook or LinkedIn, which supports easy resource sharing across the platform. “Nine times out of 10, Black entrepreneurs are sole proprietors and owner-operators,” says Ifill. “It’s important they have the social fabric needed to sustain their businesses and be successful.”
Founder & CEO, WELLTHI
Founder & CEO, WELLTHI
For a set time, people in the woman’s community came together to pool cash resources, and every year the charitable pot would rotate, landing on a different person each time. Whoever received the pot would collect the funds raised, and then the process continued. That year, it was Gilliam’s interviewee’s turn, and with the money collected, she planned to move to the United States and start a business.
The next 10 years passed with Gilliam researching how people save and build wealth in emerging markets, outside of the traditional banking system. Although she worked as a diplomat and management consultant, Gilliam struggled to make ends meet as a single mother in the pricey Washington, D.C., area. Recalling the gaedon, Gilliam joined a susu with college friends. Similar in concept, a susu is a saving practice popular in African and Caribbean cultures, in which people in the group help one another reach financial goals.
Aiming to mirror the concept of a susu, Wellthi is Gilliam’s approach to modernize the concept of social banking. Wellthi has a built-in relationship with banks, as it plugs directly into each bank’s mobile app, offering customers the opportunity to receive personalized financial advice, unlock new capital, and have a private banking experience, without ever leaving their homes. Similar to Zelle, it can be connected to any account or card, allowing users to structure their financial goals with friends, save, fundraise, spend, and network with others.
Since launching Wellthi in 2020 and joining Start Path, Gilliam’s venture has gone from early-stage technology to a successful company . “It’s expensive to build things in-house,” Gilliam shares. “Without Start Path’s partnership and co-innovation support, I would never be able to provide the technology solutions that I can provide to my partner banks now.”
Founder & CEO, GeneQTY
Founder & CEO, GeneQTY
In 2018, she was accepted into Presidential Leadership Scholars, a six-month program that brings together 60 leaders across the nonprofit, military, public, and private sectors to critically engage with societal challenges and share solutions. GenEQTY was born during Gumbs’s time in the program. Now financial institutions and other fintechs are her clients.
GenEQTY offers a modern, flexible platform that fintechs and financial institutions can use to convert raw data into meaningful insights. Its actionable intelligence tools help analyze key aspects of a customer’s profile, empowering providers with crucial information they need for better decision-making in underwriting or developing new products and services.
“We make raw business data usable so banks can be better financial partners to their SMB clients,” Gumbs says.
As she grows GenEQTY, Gumbs splits her time between New York, where she has an established network in finance, and the Twin Cities, where she’s building new relationships in the entrepreneurial and tech community.
Mastercard and the Start Path program helped Gumbs shape her company’s vision and direction. “Our affiliation with Mastercard’s Start Path program allowed us to develop enterprise-ready solutions and go to market in a hyper-focused way,” she says. Gumbs envisions changing the ways financial institutions distribute capital, advice, and financial products to the SMB market. “Our goal is to be the connective data piping that sits between the massive SMB market and the providers that want to give them the service they deserve,” she continues.
Learn more about Mastercard’s Start Path In Solidarity program: developer.mastercard.com/programs/start-path-in-solidarity