Pharrell Williams’ Black Ambition Announces 4TH Annual Cohort

of Black ambition at Demo DayBlack Ambition

The Black Ambition initiative is helping to remedy the narrative that Black entrepreneurs have historically faced when trying to secure VC funding. Yesterday, the organization proudly announced its fourth annual “Black Ambition Prize Competition”, which is now open for applications for the 2024 prize cycle. The yearly prize competition serves as a platform for innovation and aims to bridge the racial wealth gap by empowering underrepresented founders. The 2024 prize eligibility verticals include technology (Web 3.0 inclusive), healthcare, consumer products and services, media, and entertainment, and it has introduced a new vertical this year, artificial intelligence. To date, Black Ambition has awarded nearly $10 million to over 100 Black and Hispanic founders and has supported an additional 750 entrepreneurs with mentorship to strengthen their ventures. Black Ambition network founders have raised over $95 million and generated over $23 million in revenue.

Founder Pharell Williams and Black Ambition CEO Felecia Hatcher are committed to providing more than just funding through their other initiatives like The Black Ambitionist Mentorship Program- a three-month program that provides entrepreneurs with invaluable access to strategic relationships, tailored programming, and cutting-edge tools. The duo also cultivates the next generation of Black and Brown entrepreneurs by partnering with the Thurgood Marshall College Fund and Techstars to expand their 3-day “So Ambitious” HBCU campus tour series. It will also launch an 8-week HBCU pre-accelerator program where up to 10 HBCU prize winners will be selected to participate in a virtual pitch competition for prize awards totaling $250,000. The HBCU tour will kick off on March 1st with the first stop at Florida A&M University, and applications for the pre-accelerator will open in June.

“I’m honored that three years later we are still able to find and fund these incredible entrepreneurs – who may not have had the opportunity to change the world as they have with their innovative companies and ideas without the support of Black Ambition,” says Founder Pharrell Williams. “To see what we have created and continue to build on each year gives me immense hope for the future in closing the opportunity and wealth gaps and establishing equity for people of color.”

Black Ambition CEO Felecia Hatcher sat for an interview to discuss the organization’s impact, season 2 of her well-received “So Ambitious” podcast, and the state of Black and Brown funding. Maïré Rosa, the founder of ecomspace and second-place prize winner of $250,000, sat to talk about her experience in the Black Ambition prize competition and journey to entrepreneurship. These interviews have been edited for clarity and brevity.

Maïré Rosa of ecomspaces

Stephanie Tharpe: Tell me about ecomspaces and why you founded it.

Maïré Rosa: So ecomspaces is the company I dreamed of having when I started my first business because I went through so much struggle and not so much money when I had my first e-commerce business. I promised myself whenever I had the resources, I would help other founders. So that’s basically what we’re doing at ecomspace. We have created an e-commerce hub offering logistics services, products, photo marketing, a co-working space, and anything an e-commerce seller will need. We have them under one roof in Atlanta, Georgia, and online.

Stephanie Tharpe: What was your experience participating in the Black Ambition cohort?

Maïré Rosa: It was amazing. And it’s still amazing. Many people are focusing on the prize money, but the money is just like the cherry on top of the milkshake. The whole experience, even if I didn’t win any money, was really priceless. And participating in the mentorship program before the pitch competition definitely made me a better CEO. I’ve increased my network and met so many people who were able to help me with things like my business structure. There have been so many things that Black Ambition brought to me. It has changed me as a person and a CEO.

Stephanie Tharpe: What specifically did you change about your leadership style?

Maïré Rosa: One significant change I made was to be less involved in my business operations. And that actually came through the mentorship that we had before the pitch competition. They had us focus on not being involved in the day-to-day operations but emphasized having a solid team around you. The mentorship program and competition taught me to push myself.

Stephanie Tharpe: What advice would you give anyone looking to apply for the upcoming Black Ambition cohort?

Maïré Rosa: When I applied, I didn’t have any hope of being selected because I thought I wasn’t worthy. I’d never been seen before; this was the first time I received money for my business. So I would tell anybody not to feel like they’re not worthy and to go for it because it’s not about where your business is compared to others. But are you solving a problem? Is your business really authentic? Are you doing this for good reasons? Black Ambition is really about storytelling and your background as a founder. It’s so focused on the founders. And we rarely get that, especially when we form minority communities. And for someone like me who’s not from the US. I came here, and I was isolated. I don’t have family here. And so it became like my family.

CEO of Black Ambition Felecia Hatcher

Black Ambition

Black Ambition CEO Felecia Hatcher

Stephanie Tharpe: How does it feel to reach the fourth-year milestone of the Black Ambition initiative? Making it to your fourth cohort is quite an accomplishment.

Felecia Hatcher: The weight of signing a million-dollar check for a first-year entrepreneur was not a small feat for me. Much like Maïré [ who shed a few tears while responding to her last question], tears welled up as I sat with those checks on my desk, unable to sign them immediately. It was a profound moment, a full circle from my family’s history of hard work. Growing up, I watched my dad and uncle toil in their construction business, not fully realizing their entrepreneurial spirit until much later. Even further back, my grandfather in Jamaica was a farmer, another unsung entrepreneur of his time. Reflecting on my 12 years as an entrepreneur, with all the struggles, late nights, rejections, and victories, it all converged in that moment. Every year during demo day, tears flow because we all understand the journey, finding common ground in the paths we’ve walked.

The significance of supporting entrepreneurs like Maria, who defy the odds and overcome systemic barriers, is palpable. The frustration at the racism in funding and corporate spaces is real, where deserving ventures are often overlooked. This urgency fuels Black ambition, driving us into the fourth year with a sense of purpose. The power lies in these entrepreneurs’ stories and intentions for themselves, their businesses, families, and communities. As we continue, it’s about more than just dreams; it’s about the tangible impact, the growth that exceeds expectations. The journey is emotional, tied to personal histories and a collective vision for a better future.

Black Ambition Prize winners 2023

Black Ambition

Stephanie Tharpe: Creating a space where Black entrepreneurs feel supported, seen, and heard is crucial. Your initiative provides visibility, support, funding, and tangible results with generated income. Despite this, why do you believe there remains a stigma or skepticism among funding vessels or VCs regarding Black and Brown tech businesses?

Felecia Hatcher: There are several reasons why these issues persist. Firstly, we’re not far removed from the legacy of Jim Crow laws, racism, and slavery. The biases that shaped those eras still exist today. Additionally, from my experience in economic development and community building for entrepreneurship, some individuals and institutions benefit from our communities’ lack of capital. They profit from high housing rates and undervalued businesses and homes, essentially preying on our disadvantages for their gain. There are also entrenched Old Boy networks, issues of ‘know, like, and trust,’ and pattern matching, all working against us.

However, we’ve also seen positive steps in the past few years. There’s been an increase in funding specifically for black fund managers, new fund launches, and programs initiated after the murder of George Floyd. While some of these efforts have waned, it’s essential to acknowledge the progress made. It’s easy to focus solely on our community’s challenges, but we must also highlight the opportunities that can lead to tremendous success and shared prosperity through investments. This is why storytelling is crucial to what we do. We share not just the story of our founder, Pharrell, but also those of the many incredible entrepreneurs who have overcome the odds, created opportunities for themselves and their communities, and are shaping a different future. I choose to imagine a world transformed by their work, one that is not just optimistic but also realistic about the innovation and financial backing needed to achieve it.

Stephanie Tharpe: For any company starting the fundraising process – whether bootstrapping, seeking VC funding, or joining accelerator programs – what are some key characteristics that successful companies tend to have?

Felecia Hatcher: We receive over 2000 applications each year, narrowing it down to around 250 semi-finalists who go through a three-month mentorship program. From there, we select the top three companies to invest in. We assess various factors like product-market fit and whether they see their company’s potential on a global scale, understanding that as people of color, we are part of the global majority. We also consider whether they recognize their culture as an asset; Black Ambition is a space where cultural identity is valued without needing excessive explanation. Team resilience and determination are crucial, as we want to see that the business will persist regardless of our investment, showcasing their passion and commitment. Our program offers financial support, mentorship, and connections, acting as rocket fuel for their growth.

Additionally, we evaluate whether they will be responsible stewards of the resources we provide, considering the unique celebrity-backed nature of our program. We want to ensure they are ready for the opportunities and connections we offer. While not a requirement, we look for a heart for social impact in the companies we invest in. We want to see a ripple effect back to their communities, whether it’s where they are based or where they aim to grow. This isn’t explicitly on the application, but it’s a quality we’ve noticed in the 101 companies we’ve invested in so far. Their dreams extend beyond themselves, and their passion for impact is evident in their work.

Stephanie Tharpe: You mentioned the mentorship aspect earlier. Regarding the competition cohort and the other element, are these separate entities, or do they work together in tandem, especially in terms of mentorship?

Felecia Hatcher: At the core of our program are three vital mentorship components that ensure the success and growth of the entrepreneurs we support. First and foremost, during the rigorous application process, we engage with around 250 entrepreneurs annually, immersing them in a three-month program that is integral to our prize selection process. This initial phase serves as a deep dive into their businesses, helping us identify the top contenders for investment. It’s a crucial period where we assess their potential for success and provide them with valuable insights and guidance.

Upon selecting the entrepreneurs we invest in, a second phase of mentorship kicks in. This phase is dynamic and multifaceted, offering a range of support mechanisms. Entrepreneurs have access to office hours with seasoned professionals and investors, providing invaluable one-on-one guidance tailored to their specific needs. We also have an ‘entrepreneurs in residence’ program, where experienced industry leaders join us to offer hands-on mentorship. Furthermore, our strong network of corporate partners plays a pivotal role. Many of these partners, such as Chanel and LVMH, host exclusive learning labs where our winners gain unparalleled access to their headquarters for immersive experiences. This direct engagement with the C-suite executives of these global conglomerates is an opportunity for learning and growth that extends far beyond the traditional mentorship model.

In addition to these components, we are deeply committed to supporting the entrepreneurial spirit within Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs). We carefully select six to eight campuses each year to participate in a specially curated program. Teaming up with TechStars and the Thurgood Marshall Foundation, we embark on a three-day tour, bringing mentors directly to HBCU campuses. These mentors provide invaluable guidance and support, while selected companies also receive capital through grants. This HBCU program is a testament to our dedication to fostering entrepreneurship and innovation within historically underrepresented communities.

While these grant opportunities are important, they are just one aspect of our comprehensive support. Our primary focus and largest investments lie in the entrepreneurs who undergo our meticulous prize process. This holistic approach to mentorship, spanning from the initial application phase to post-investment support, ensures that our entrepreneurs have the tools, guidance, and connections they need to thrive and succeed in the competitive business landscape.

Stephanie Tharpe: Why is it important to begin cultivating our founders at the HBCU and collegiate levels? From my own experience, I only encountered this once I entered a different industry. So why the emphasis on starting early?

Felecia Hatcher: Pharrell often emphasizes and truly believes that Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) are the fertile ground for entrepreneurship, innovation, and pure hustle. This sentiment resonates deeply with me as well. When we look at the history makers and major inventors in the United States, especially among the black community, so many of them have roots in HBCUs. These campuses hold a long-standing legacy and history of nurturing talent and fostering a strong sense of culture and community. While I didn’t have the opportunity to attend an HBCU myself, I married a Morehouse man, which has given me a firsthand understanding of the unique environment these institutions provide. Together, we’ve launched multiple businesses, and there’s a palpable difference in how talent is cultivated, and community is nurtured at HBCUs.

Another critical aspect of why supporting HBCUs is paramount is the findings from our survey of 103 HBCUs across the US. Shockingly, 90% of these institutions either lack an entrepreneurship concentration, an entrepreneurship center on campus, or a co-working space or innovation center focused on the black community in their city. This means that despite having talented individuals, they are often disconnected from the support, resources, and entrepreneurial ecosystem needed to thrive. It’s a structural issue that hinders the full potential of these budding entrepreneurs. By aligning these resources with the curriculum and the cities where these HBCUs reside, we can significantly increase the number of successful entrepreneurs coming out of these institutions.

Our HBCU tour serves as a crucial step in this direction. I vividly recall one of our winners, Gently Soaps, from Atlanta. She initially won a small prize in Atlanta through our accelerator program. From there, she went on to secure a deal from Shark Tank and subsequently won an actual Black Ambition prize, all within the span of one year. This remarkable journey showcases the immense talent within HBCUs and the impact our support can have. Imagine if programs like ours didn’t prioritize HBCUs. Someone as talented and driven as Gently could have easily been overlooked without the focus on cultivating HBCU entrepreneurs.

For me, this connection to Pharrell’s passion for HBCUs runs deep. It’s not just about entrepreneurship; it’s about building communities, creating job opportunities, and laying the foundation for growth. HBCUs are at the heart of this movement, and supporting them is not just an investment in individual entrepreneurs but in the future prosperity of our communities.

Stephanie Tharpe: Was it primarily the influx of startups and companies passing through the Black Ambition network, or were there additional factors forming the foundation for starting the podcast?

Felecia Hatcher: One of the very first conversations I had with Pharrell when I came on as CEO was about the need for a podcast that could truly capture the essence of Black Ambition. He emphasized the importance of a storytelling mechanism not just to share the stories of Black and Hispanic entrepreneurs but to illuminate their most ambitious moments. These are the moments when they bet everything, cashed in on their 401k and persisted despite hearing ‘no’ from everyone around them. It’s not just inspiring to listen to these stories; it’s crucial to understand how people make decisions when their backs are against the wall. When the world tells them to play it safe, they take a bold leap forward. There’s an urgency and a market need associated with these stories that resonate deeply.

For me, the essence of Black Ambition lies not just in success stories but also in stories of failure and resilience. In Season One, we focused a lot on entrepreneurs sharing their failures. One poignant example is when an entrepreneur shared about being married to an NBA player while navigating the challenges of her business. She realized that the best decision for both her business idea and her health was to close down, reconfigure, and relaunch. Understanding the mindset, the strategy, and the courage it takes to make such decisions is incredibly valuable. These stories serve as both learning lessons and inspiration. Entrepreneurs open up about the red and yellow flags they ignored, transparently sharing so others can avoid similar pitfalls and find an easier pathway.

This year, we featured Necole Kane, who shared her journey of her company being acquired by Will Packer, a moment that externally seemed like a mountaintop celebration. However, internally, she faced an existential crisis, questioning her next steps. Her honesty about this experience resonated deeply, showing that there can be internal struggles and uncertainties even in moments of apparent success. These stories from the podcast are not just narratives; they are blueprints for navigating the complex world of entrepreneurship. They offer a glimpse into the highs and lows, the successes and failures, and the courage and vulnerability required to pursue ambitious dreams.

Stephanie Tharpe: From all the stories you hear, is there anything that consistently surprises you when speaking with entrepreneurs?

Felecia Hatcher: One of the most remarkable things that never ceases to surprise me is the absolute superpower that Black and Brown entrepreneurs possess: the ability to do more with less, creating something extraordinary from what seems like nothing. It’s an epic and undervalued superpower that, technically, we shouldn’t even have. Yet, repeatedly, we prove to be masters and geniuses at making miracles happen with limited resources. Every time I think I’ve heard the pinnacle of this phenomenon, I encounter another entrepreneur and am left in awe. They’ve literally conjured success out of thin air with no significant capital, resources, or support. It’s truly fascinating and speaks volumes about our resilience and ingenuity.

What strikes me is how this narrative is so different from the stereotypical image of the white tech guy starting his company in his parent’s garage. Many of us didn’t have garages growing up, yet here we are, building empires from the ground up. Unfortunately, the world often fails to recognize and value these stories in their entirety. Our stories are not just relatable to black and brown communities; they are representative of universal human experiences. This realization is what drove us at Black Ambition to expand internationally. We recognized that the lessons and inspiration from our entrepreneurs resonate far beyond racial or cultural boundaries.

So, these are the things that continue to surprise and inspire me. The sheer tenacity and creativity of black and brown entrepreneurs to defy the odds and create something meaningful out of seemingly nothing. It reminds us of the vast untapped potential within our communities and the importance of telling these stories on a global stage.

Stephanie Tharpe: What overall impact on the Black and Brown entrepreneurial landscape and the VC landscape do you and Pharrell aim to achieve with the Black Ambition initiative?

Felecia Hatcher: We have some ambitious dreams, especially after last year’s demo day in November. Pharrell shared a bold vision: deploying a billion dollars in capital to support Black and Hispanic entrepreneurs. It was shocking, yet necessary, for transformative change in our space. This billion-dollar goal has become our North Star, aiming to address the significant gaps in equity within our community.

Considering the McKinsey study from last year, major corporations pledged $340 billion after George Floyd’s murder. However, less than 4% of that has been allocated. This billion-dollar commitment may seem large, but it’s just a fraction of what’s already promised. We’re calling for these corporations to fulfill their obligations, recognizing our communities’ immense need for capital. This funding is vital for entrepreneurship and housing, infrastructure, economic development, and education.

Our ultimate goal is self-sustainability, financial liberation, and economic empowerment. We envision a community of abundance where we can thrive for generations to come. Pharrell often speaks about the ripple effect of Black Ambition, and we’re working towards a massive ripple effect from an economic standpoint, benefiting our communities and entrepreneurs alike.

Registration is open to attend the first stop of the HBCU campus tour series at FAMU and tune in for the second season of the ” So Ambitious” podcast with Felecia Hatcher.

Check out my website. 

I’m a Forbes contributor and journalist. I cover live events, 1 on 1 interviews, and literary content that revolves around the Black and Brown experience.  I’m originally from Melbourne Beach Florida and live in ” The City Beautiful” Orlando Florida. I work as a literary consultant, curate corporate book clubs, and private book club experiences.

Read MoreRead Less



To top