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Loyola course will let students invest in Baltimore’s social entrepreneurs

In a frame from one of the “Stories, Context, and Lived Experiences of the Black Entrepreneur” videos, Bill Romani, left, and Tyrell Dixon walk through Baltimore.

“My great-grandmother Lucille was born in Sumter, South Carolina, in 1922, and moved here when she was a child in the mid-1920s,” says entrepreneur Tyrell Dixon, his voice overlaying footage of Baltimore city streets, accompanied by a subtle piano score. “And, like a lot of Black families during that time, came here looking for opportunities that didn’t exist in the South.” 

It’s the beginning of a 14-minute video where Dixon, who runs a business dedicated to helping Baltimoreans overcome barriers to homeownership, describes why he started his business, citing his own family members’ systemic struggles to become homeowners in Baltimore. He also discusses how his company, Project Own, aims to help alleviate systemic issues in the city and what it’s like to be an entrepreneur of color. 

The video, which was first presented on Friday at the Global Consortium of Entrepreneurship Centers Conference, hosted by the University of Baltimore and Loyola University Maryland, is part of a project, developed by Loyola faculty members Bill Romani and Raenita Fenner, called “Stories, Context, and Lived Experiences of the Black Entrepreneur.”  

The project is comprised of six learning modules that were created as part of curriculum for a class that Romani and Fenner are developing, to be launched in fall 2022. It aims to teach Loyola students about the history and sociology of Black entrepreneurship in Baltimore, in order to help them become better investors and businesspeople in the future.

Funded by a $13,818 award sponsored by the International Association of Jesuit Universities, the videos and other course materials were created in partnership with campus organizations like GreyComm Studios, Loyola’s student-run media organization. 

Select students from the course will move into a spring experiential learning course, where they will have the opportunity to use money from the university’s recently established Loyola Angels Fund to invest in Baltimore businesses. The fund serves two purposes — allowing students to have the real-life experiences of recruiting, researching, vetting and investing in companies, while also supporting under-resourced entrepreneurs in the area.

The fund raised its goal of $100,000 in charitable donations only two months after it first launched last summer; the new goal is $250,000. Any returns students make on the investments will be put back into the fund. 

Romani, the entrepreneur in residence at Loyola’s Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship, wasn’t surprised that the initial goal for the fund was reached so quickly and easily. 

“We found that we were in a position to raise money for something that is consistent with not only the values of the university, but the values of the alumni and the people that support our university,” he said. 

Additionally, he noted that the class and fund seem to be a novel concept; whereas other universities will give students the opportunity to invest in university-affiliated companies, led by students or faculty, he hasn’t heard of any other that is focused on entrepreneurship in the surrounding community.  

Loyola’s program is also unique in that it focuses largely on social entrepreneurship, or companies that aim to solve or improve systemic issues in Baltimore. 

Romani and Fenner, who is an associate professor of engineering and the director of the school’s African and African American Studies interdisciplinary minor, first started developing this course around a year ago but struggled to find existing materials that focused on Baltimore-area entrepreneurship. That inspired them to go out into the community and develop materials themselves. 

“What we’re trying to do is to allow (the entrepreneurs) to best convey their stories, their experiences, in their own words,” Romani said.  

All six of the modules, which Romani said he hopes professors at other Jesuit universities are able to use in their own courses, center on business owners who either aim to address issues in or are from historically redlined neighborhoods. Along with the videos, the modules include readings and resources to provide background and context, behavioral objectives that describe what students should take away from the videos, and suggested activities to pair with the videos.  

The six modules can be used together, or individual modules can be used to teach about different topics, like generational wealth, affordable housing or workplace equity. 

“There’s no reason why these modules cannot also be used in a social science course or a humanities course or even, if you stretched a little bit, a STEM course,” because the systemic issues covered in the videos are relevant across disciplines, Renner said during Friday’s presentation. 

Ultimately, Romani and Fenner hope seeing Black social entrepreneurs tell their stories will motivate students to work with these businesses in the future — as investors. That’s an important goal, considering Black-owned businesses and businesses that serve under-resourced communities are less likely to receive investments. Black female entrepreneurs received just 0.34% of venture capital funding distributed in the first half of 2021, for example. 

“Students … that participate in service-based projects as students are much more likely to do that as professionals,” Romani said. “We expect that if we engage students in the practice of social wealth creation and investing for the public good that they will be more likely to do that as graduates when they are in a position to be investors themselves.” 

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