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Leveling the Playing Field and Powering Entrepreneurship

by Mark Otter on

Shelly Omilâdè “Omi” Bell found her calling in 2016: To level the playing field for women founders and entrepreneurs. To dismantle the barriers, Omi is leveraging the powerful principles of communities of practice (CoP). 

After working as an educator, patent examiner, spoken word artist, print shop owner and computer scientist, Omi saw venture capital as ripe for disruption. For generations, America’s black and brown communities were disproportionately shut out from the social and financial capital that helps promising startups achieve long-term growth. 

What began as an in-person community organized around poetry slams, brunches, and small gatherings has evolved into a national organization with a presence in at least a dozen major markets. To meet demand, Black Girl Ventures (BGV) has developed three programs: a leadership fellowship, pitch program, and mentorship for HBCU students and graduates.


Opening doors for women to grow as leaders. 

Black Girl Ventures Foundation is dedicated to creating access to social and financial capital for Black and Brown women-identifying founders and entrepreneurs. Founded in 2016 initially as a pitch competition to fund new businesses, BGV has raised $5 million for over 300 women-led companies, and built a community of over 20,000 women entrepreneurs and creators.

The Challenge: More Than an LMS

As someone who never quite fit in at a traditional workplace, Shelly Omilâdè “Omi” Bell says she always seeks big solutions to big problems. 

Several years ago, Omi was seeking a technology tool to help her scale BGV’s Change Agent Fellowship, at the time an in-person leadership development program for women in local business communities. She was in the process of creating a standardized curriculum for an online toolkit to accompany the high-demand local program events when the pandemic forced her to completely rethink how her team could deliver the program.

She needed more than an online learning management system; she wanted to empower BGV community members to learn from and connect with one another through virtual mentorship and facilitated conversations. 

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Why Participate? Expertise and Partnership

Through her research and review of options, she found Participate and realized that a digital Communities of Practice model could be applied to not only scale her online curriculum, but to also encourage collaboration and spur innovation among the network of women. 

Omi worked closely with Participate’s partnership expert design team to bring the fellowship program to life online, using Participate's comprehensive platform and learning tools to connect early-stage entrepreneurs through interactive modules that could be tailored for cohorts in different cities and varied needs. 

She also liked the idea of introducing BGV members to a world of online learning. “It was an opportunity to learn other things from other people who were hosting open communities on Participate.”

Today, the Change Agent Fellowship’s Jetpack for Leaders curriculum is a robust 9-month virtual skills development program facilitated by industry leaders.

“I'm big on customer service, and the Participate team is the real MVP. They've taken our feedback on building out modules and it has been great.” 

The Next Chapter: Creating a Sense of Workplace Belonging

“Now it is so much bigger than that.” 

After the successful launch of the online fellowship program curriculum, Omi applied Participate Communities of Practice to other aspects of her growing organization.

BGV partnered with Participate to overhaul BGV’s new employee onboarding and internal communications processes through interactive learning experiences. When new team members join, they learn about the organization’s philosophy and values, internal organization structures and norms—and even learn how to pitch an idea using the same training principles that BGV’s founders learn about. 

Ultimately, Omi says Participate has given her a way to build a culture that allows people to be their authentic selves.

“It’s become a sort of repository for how we keep our internal culture moving.”

You can learn more about Black Girl Ventures and Omi's work in this Participate Podcast episode and this recent Jobs for the Future article in which Omi maps entrepreneurial skills to workforce skills.

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