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Why we launched an impact investment fellowship cohort for historically black colleges & universities

March 4, 2021

Editor’s note: Blair Kirchner and Hattie Brown are directors of the Kirchner Food Fellowship, a student-led impact investment program operated by the Kirchner Impact Foundationan arm of leading ag sector advisor Kirchner Group.

The program is now accepting applications from students for three separate cohorts, including one designed for students of historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs), and another for students in Central America and North American students with a connection to Central America.

The views expressed in this guest article are the authors’ own and do not necessarily represent those of AFN.

Kirchner Group is an organization led by strong values of inclusion and equality. The movement for racial justice in the US — precipitated by the killing of George Floyd and others by the police, along with the demonstrations demanding equal treatment for Black Americans — brought to light that we as an organization, like the country, needed to do more.

Though inequity is deeply entrenched in every aspect of our lives, perhaps its most insidious form relates to wealth. In a recent report, Citi estimated that the racial wealth gap has cost the US economy over $16 trillion in the last 20 years due to health, housing, education, and business investment gaps.

Nowhere is the disparity in racial representation more apparent than in the finance industry, where a dismal 1.3% of the $70 trillion in assets under management are managed by women and people of color combined. In venture capital, where the Kirchner Food Fellowship’s investment training lays, just 6% of investment professionals are people of color.

However, asset management is just one piece of the puzzle. In terms of access to capital, only 1% of VC-backed companies have a black founder.

The racial wealth gap is fundamentally connected to another field, near and dear to our hearts: food and agriculture. As a result of structural racism, people of color are more likely to be surrounded by food deserts. Food justice advocates, such as Karen Washington, prefer the term ‘food apartheid,’ because it highlights the racialized nature of healthy food access.

The racial wealth gap and food apartheid can be directly attributed to loss of land. During the peak and immediate aftermath of the Jim Crow laws which enforced racial segregation in some US states well into the 20th century, Black Americans lost an area of land the size of New York’s Central Park – every day. According to a recent New York Times article, farms run by African Americans make up less than 2% of all of the nation’s farms today, down from 14% in 1920, due to decades of racial violence and unfair lending and land ownership policies.

With these facts in mind we challenged ourselves: What can we do to move the needle on racial equity?

At the Kirchner Impact Foundation, we put our heads together to develop, in partnership with a soon-to-be-announced leading food and agriculture research group: the Kirchner Food Fellowship HBCU cohort. As a pioneering program in developing VC allocators in food and ag, the program is continuing its diverse track record, which to date has alumni that represent over 40 institutions, nine countries, and gender parity.

The HBCU cohort aims to address the multifaceted issue of diversity in the investment space, as well as to increase access to funding for black, indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC) entrepreneurs in food and agriculture. Though the program is first and foremost focused on workforce development, fellows will also explore the ways in which the investment process can focus on BIPOC entrepreneurs and end consumers.

We know that our program won’t solve the depth of disparities we see in finance, food, and agriculture, but it’s a start. We’re not alone in this endeavor. Many organizations are waking up and discovering that changes are imminent, and that we should be making a beeline for the talent that comes from institutions like HBCUs. Every change to that effect gets us closer to a more equitable, more just society.

We believe strongly in doing our part in diversifying capital allocators and capital allocation. We are optimistic that this HBCU program will grow and become an important piece of the puzzle we are all striving to solve. This fundamental belief is why we launched this program and are committed to its success. 

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