Congressional Caucus on Black Innovation debuts on Capitol Hill

The new caucus, chaired by members of Congress Stacey Plaskett, Ritchie Torres, and Congresswoman Marilyn Strickland, aims to close the economic gap for Black entrepreneurs in tech and innovation.

Members of the Black Alliance Coalition and others gather with Congresswoman Stacey Plaskett outside the Capitol for the launch of the Congressional Caucus on Black Innovation. (Photo: theGrio/Gerren Keith Gaynor)

A new congressional caucus aimed at closing the economic gap for Black entrepreneurs in tech and innovation was launched on Capitol Hill. 

Dozens gathered at the House Triangle outside of the Capitol building on Tuesday to mark the creation of the Congressional Caucus on Black Innovation, led by Congresswoman Stacey Plaskett of the U.S. Virgin Islands, Congressman Ritchie Torres of New York, and Congresswoman Marilyn Strickland of Washington. 

The new caucus seeks to develop policy that will address systemic racism and bias that prevent Black innovators from accessing the capital that allows them to sustain and thrive compared to their white counterparts. 

“I formed this caucus with the goal of confronting the challenges Black innovators face with a commitment to transforming the status quo and advancing robust policies intended to close the economic, ownership and sustainability divide,” said Congresswoman Plaskett at Tuesday’s caucus launch, which was followed by a day of programming with a coalition of Black innovative leaders and entrepreneurs. 

Congresswoman Stacey Plaskett outside the Capitol for the launch of the Congressional Caucus on Black Innovation. (Photo: theGrio/Gerren Keith Gaynor)

“While there is no shortage of talented Black founders and innovators, research reveals that bias is preventing equal footing competition and autonomy. There are significant barriers and disparities that hinder the growth of Black innovators, including inadequate access to capital and inequitable legislation, regulatory hindrances and limited philanthropic support.”

The Congressional Caucus on Black Innovation was the brainchild of the Black Innovation Alliance (BIA) and its executive director Kelly Burton. BIA was formed in 2020 during the pandemic and on the heels of the George Floyd uprisings. Its mission is to make racial equity in the business and tech leadership space a reality. 

“We had been working with a consulting team, Pink Cornrows, which designed a movement strategy for us because we believe that if we’re really going to make change in the space around racial equity, it’s got to come from movement. It can’t come from individuals [and] it can’t come through individual organizations,” Burton told theGrio.

During last year’s Web Summit in Lisbon, Portugal, Burton met Congresswoman Plaskett, with who she shared her idea to form a congressional caucus to address the inequities faced by Black innovators. Plaskett loved the idea so much that she went back to Washington, D.C., to corral her staff and eventually the offices of Torres and Strickland. The three members of Congress will serve as co-chairs of the new caucus.

“American history contains no shortage of Black innovators who have left their marks often without recognition. I’m proud to stand with my fellow Co-Chairs in launching the Caucus on Black Innovation and kicking off Black Innovation Alliance’s Decade of Black Innovation,” Congressman Torres said in a statement to theGrio

Rep. Ritchie Torres (D-N.Y) speaks at the “Time to Deliver” Home Care Workers rally and march on November 16, 2021 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Jemal Countess/Getty Images for SEIU)

“It is my hope that this caucus will become a space for new innovation pioneers to access the resources they need to reinvigorate our economy with their ideas and form meaningful connections with other innovators. One of our nation’s greatest strengths is our diversity, and we must ensure that our world-class innovative industries reflect that diversity.”

Burton said the goal of the caucus is to provide an “umbrella” of solutions through policy that addresses a myriad of hindrances for Black innovators, including representation in tech, Web3 and cryptocurrency and access to broadband. The objective is to present an omnibus of bills to address this range of issues.

The three most important needs for Black innovators, said Burton, are financial capital, social capital and educational capital. 

“The big challenge is that we don’t have folks in our network that are resourceful in the ways that we need to be resourced. They’re very supportive but less resourceful, so we have to build up those networks,” said Burton. 

“A lot of times people get into business because they’re passionate about something or they have an idea — not understanding there’s this whole toolkit that you need in order to have a successful business. We need to build out the ecosystem so that we can deploy programming that enables people to be successful once they receive the funding.”

The formation of the new caucus on innovation to promote racial equity in technology and business comes with the backdrop of Elon Musk, the world’s wealthiest man, purchasing Twitter to the tune of $44 billion. Twitter has long been a platform where Black Americans have over-indexed in users. It’s also where the Black Lives Matter movement was formed and popularized. 

“It’s absolutely frightening to think that the Black voice is going to be filtered through something owned by Elon Musk. But for me, it causes me to say what could be the alternative?” Burton told theGrio

Musk’s purchase of Twitter only reinforces the need for a caucus like CBI, said Burton.

“What happens is that Black folks get on these channels similar to what’s going on with Elon Musk, whether it’s Twitter or whether it’s Clubhouse, or whether it’s TikTok, and we make it hot, and we make it legit, and we make no money. That’s a problem.”

Tesla and SpaceX CEO Elon Musk arrives on the red carpet for the Axel Springer media award in Berlin on Dec. 1, 2020. Musk says he has lined up $46.5 billion in financing to buy Twitter, and he’s trying to negotiate an agreement with the company. (Hannibal Hanschke/Pool Photo via AP, File)

She added, “The reason that we can’t create competitors is because no one has given us money to be able to even play at that level. So we need to figure out how we leverage our community because everything we need is here. We just need to figure out how we connect the dots and how we direct resources. Individualism has never worked for Black people. It never will.”

Leaders in the creative and web economy space like Burton now have allies on Capitol Hill to help achieve their goal of collective prosperity.

Congresswoman Plaskett said the Caucus on Black Innovation will engage private sector investors, industry leaders and academics to “discuss solutions and leverage congressional resources to provide programmatic regulatory funding support necessary to advance Black wealth creation in the technology age.”

“We support policies necessary to achieve sustainable progress through a multifaceted racial equity lens. We’re going to address all of that, but we’re also going to use our position as members of Congress to press them, to push them, to make people do better, whether it is in Congress, in the tech world, in the investment world, or at the White House, to make sure that we are taken care of while this moves forward.”

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