Business School Is Broken
Honoring Ancestral Stories Through Business Education
Whiteness is too often the default, and the factory model of education persists. Kelly Holmes, Lavonya Jones, and Alice Loy show how a growing community of Black and Indigenous entrepreneurs, and people working in the creative economy, are leading the way forward.
As an educator at an HBCU, Lavonya Jones teaches a curriculum that speaks to her student population. Jones assigns African American Management History to connect her students with the long history of African American entrepreneurship. Her exams feature case studies from countries around the world. On her podcast, Jones spotlights people working on the United Nations 17 Sustainable Development Goals. She is developing pitch competitions for Black or Indigenous students doing work that benefits their communities.
Kelly Holmes, a member of the Oceti Sakowin nation, founded Native Max, the first ever Native fashion magazine, at the age of 20. Holmes attended business seminars for advice on her growing business, but neither the instructors nor the examples reflected her culture or her needs as a creative entrepreneur. Her dissatisfaction with the status quo led her to team up with Creative Startups on the Creative Nations Innovation Challenge for Indigenous Entrepreneurs.
On a recent livestream with Holmes and Jones, Creative Startups founder Alice Loy observed, “If you are an entrepreneur and you don't fit in a box, then we have a place for you. There is a growing community of people at HBCUs, in Indigenous communities, in the creative economy. We love what we call the weird and the wonderful, and we are confident that a new way of business, a new way of thinking about business, and a new value set is essential. And we are ready to help.” Read the full conversation below or watch the original livestream on our instagram!
Alice Loy: Lavonya, we first connected around uplifting communities through entrepreneurship. Kelly is a natural entrepreneur. The three of us share both a passion for entrepreneurship as a tool and a concern that business schools aren’t really offering a pathway to students, especially of color, to access entrepreneurship, money, and market opportunities.
People can be overlooked by the stories business school tells us about who gets to be in business. You shared an article that profoundly spoke to me. Would you unpack that?
Lavonya Jones: Our educational system in the US was created to make factory workers, not entrepreneurs. Even when you look at the larger predominantly white institutions, which we call PWIs, that do have strong entrepreneurial programs, they're not doing entrepreneurship well when you consider the amount of successful startups coming from them compared to HBCUs.
When African Americans were emancipated from slavery we didn't have a choice: get a job doing what you were doing on the plantation or start your own business and serve your community. And so a lot of business schools at HBCUs were founded on the business philosophies of WEB DuBois, who was a professor of sociology here at Clark Atlanta University. The way we have taught business has been more cooperative, in a way that has roots in African American culture. The idea is to create a business that impacts your community, hires people from your community, and can support your community.
We have taught business very differently at HBCUs than your typical PWIs. In the first business program at an HBCU, students could work and get equity in a store affiliated with the program. With the money that they made from the store, students could create and invest in each other's businesses. It was a successful program that unfortunately, which often happens to Black businesses, was shut down by state government policies.
Alice: White-aligned did not work out for me either. Homogenization flows through business school. It's the opposite of the creative economy, in which every person brings unique value. If we can make room for that value, we can exponentially expand what it means to be a human and be beautiful together in this life right now.
Kelly, I know you’ve struggled to find good business resources and support. What has your experience been?
Kelly Holmes: Get ready.
Alice: Okay, everyone sit down!
Kelly: I had the idea of my magazine when I was 16 years old. I wanted to create a platform that shared our stories because at the time, even in Native communities, the only time a Native person made the news, it was something bad.
As a youth pursuing fashion, I wanted to share my story, but there weren’t really any platforms for me. So I created my own platform. When I was 18, I formed my own LLC and offered styling services. At 20, I started Native Max Magazine, but I needed resources and knowledge.
I attended business seminars in Denver and felt like an outsider. My idea was creative and didn’t resemble the businesses around me, so I didn’t connect with a lot of the classes I went to. I would share my idea, and almost every time, I was told it was a bad idea. I even went to Native-specific workshops, and I was told by the white instructor that I should put this idea on the backburner and go to school instead. At the Small Business Administration it was a bunch of old white guys. One of them told me, “How about you make stuff, sit on the side of the road and make money that way.” So no help there. Everywhere I went at the beginning, nothing. But I went ahead anyway.
A few years later I went to Denver Startup Week. Since then, they’ve really made changes, but at the time, my experience wasn’t good. I went to the networking events and sat down with industry leaders. I was so excited, but it wasn’t helpful. Again, it was mostly white people working in leadership in big corporations, which is a complete mismatch.
Alice: Data shows that the current business education landscape is pretty broken. Enrollment at business schools, unless they offer programs around sustainability, impact business, helping people start and grow businesses that are solving these pressing problems, is down.
Business schools are saying How do we change? We need to reflect what’s going on in our communities, and some are changing faster than others. It seems to me that the HBCus are out in front of this issue, in part because of this legacy of being devoted to communities and the idea of a rising tide for all boats.
What are some of the things that you’re seeing, Lavonya? Can HBCUs become a sort of lighthouse for other business schools and startup programs?
Lavonya: It starts with funding and the examples we bring into the classroom. Like Kelly said, a lot of universities just bring in old white men from these corporations, and it doesn’t go well.
Most of our students come from innovation deserts, so I won’t bring someone into my class who uses jargon and can’t really meet them where they’re at. Whatever the school population is, they have to start with prioritizing having a curriculum that reflects that population.
Most PWIs like to use examples like Henry Ford and Mark Zuckerberg. I always tell people even with Bill Gates, his father is a VC. His grandfather was Rockefeller’s advisor. Most of us can’t relate to that.
That’s something HBCUs do very well. We take our students to the communities that our schools are in and let them interact with the entrepreneurs in that culture. I don't see it in larger schools.
Alice: I also heard you reframing what it means to be successful. Why don’t we uphold business cases where there’s 11 employees in which they are compensated fairly, provided healthcare, and have time to spend with their families.
When we give other people the power to define what success means, we give away all of our power. We have to reclaim that.
Lavonya: Even from a case study perspective, we still have a way to go. I want my students to be globally minded. For their midterm, I use a case study that’s based in South America. For their final, I use a case study from Vietnam. Case studies are how we teach our students to think about business, so you have to be intentional as an educator.
Alice: We need to have structures, business or otherwise, that enable future generations to achieve what they are trying to achieve: inclusion, equity, ending climate change, ending poverty. These opportunities have to be made available to them.
Lavonya: In programs that integrate those cultural components.
Alice: There’s a quote attributed to Einstein about using the same process to solve the problems that you created with that process.
When you think about the wealth of different kinds of knowing and doing that we have completely excluded, it’s no wonder we have a ton of problems that we can't figure out.
Whereas if you turn to Idigenous communities, Kelly is brilliant in the way she says, I fight for my business, because I'm fighting for my community. It’s a simple idea, but when you ground yourself in it, it changes everything.
Kelly, do you want to say a little bit about that before we wrap up?
Kelly: Speaking of business schools, I did attempt to go to Community College of Denver to get my associates in business. I'm in management but I'm not getting opportunities, so I thought I would try it another way. It was funny, because everything that I learned in school, in the classes, I legit already knew.
Alice: Like: I did that. I figured that out five years ago.
Kelly: Yes, through trial and error, but since I already had that knowledge, it felt redundant to me. I lost interest, and I dropped out. I tried to apply some of what I learned to my business, but it didn't work for me. The standard way of growing a business and operating it—indigenous business owners don't fit into those models anymore.
This past summer, we had a cohort of indigenous business owners from different nations, and we were explaining to them how to market your business, how to get out there and make sales, how to bring in customers, all of this, and everyone seemed so confused or lacking in motivation.
They're getting impostor syndrome, saying, I don't know how to get out there and get business or get sales. I don't know how to bring in customers or clients or partners, all of this. So I blurted out: You have to fight for your business.
Fight for your business because no one else is going to fight for your business like you are. No one is going to get out there. Nobody went out there for me. I had to get my ass out there and really fight for what Native Max is about, why it needs to exist. No one else is going to do that but me.
They were able to connect right away because, as Indigenous people, we have a warrior mindset. We always got out there for survival, no matter what, and we still do. Now you have to fight for your business has become my motto. But that is something that I learned firsthand from my own experiences, not in business school, or from any other resource. I learned it on my own and applied it on my own.
Alice: We can answer a couple of questions from the chat. Someone is asking, “How did Kelly start off, and how did she get her first LLC?”
Kelly: Honestly, I'm a graphic designer, web designer, event planner. I made ribbon skirts, I hustled. I had side gigs before side gigs were cool. That's what I did. I saved up money, and invested my own personal wealth into my business. Unfortunately, that's what I had to do.
But I'm trying to create these different opportunities so other business owners, especially Indigenous business owners, don't have to make money and then have to decide on if they want to invest in their business or pay their bills.
Alice: Lavonya, do you have any upcoming programs?
Lavonya: Please check out the United Nations 17 Sustainable Development Goals. If you are a Black or Indigenous person that is either doing or funding the work in those areas, we want to help you tell your story. We have our podcast, and we'll have some TV and film spots coming up soon.
If you are a Black or Indigenous student, we will be launching a series of pitch competitions to help you fund your ideas that benefit the community. Go to consciouslyfunded.com, which will take you to the podcast, and you can leave a message there. We're on Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, and you can shoot us a message, but we'll have our first competition in December this year, specifically for Black and Indigenous students.
We'll also be doing some career chats around social impact with other Black leaders. We're working on partnering with different social impact and media technology organizations to help Black and Indigenous students get internships and jobs in those areas. We're looking to partner with HBCUs and tribal colleges.
Alice: Thank you both for coming. What a blessing to have you in our realm! To wrap up, if you are an entrepreneur and you don't fit in a box, then we have a place for you. There is a growing community of people at HBCUs, in Indigenous communities, in the creative economy. We love what we call the weird and the wonderful, and we are confident that a new way of business, a new way of thinking about business and a new value set is essential. And we are ready to help.
Kelly: Love the work y’all are doing.
Lavonya: Yes. Thank you.