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Kelly Burton of Black Innovation Alliance: Why we need to rediscover communal love

We need a LOVE movement. We need to rediscover communal love and find ways to infuse love into every facet of modern day society. Some feel that love is weak, but I believe it is the ultimate super power when rightly deployed. BIA itself is an exercise in love. As a part of my series […]

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We need a LOVE movement. We need to rediscover communal love and find ways to infuse love into every facet of modern day society. Some feel that love is weak, but I believe it is the ultimate super power when rightly deployed. BIA itself is an exercise in love.


As a part of my series about strong female leaders, I had the pleasure of interviewing Kelly Burton, Co-Founder of Black Innovation Alliance.

Kelly is a modern-day renaissance woman who leads with passion, purpose and vision. She is the Founder of Nexus Research Group, a social impact firm that works with foundations and large-scale nonprofits to help them catalyze change in local communities.

In 2017, Kelly launched Founders of Color (FOC), a digital platform committed to helping minority entrepreneurs grow and scale their businesses. Today, FOC has more than 4K users in 40+ states, with members ranging from early stage tech startups to multi-million dollar companies. She is also the founding co-convener of the Black Innovation Alliance, a coalition of organizations supporting Black entrepreneurs, tech founders and creative technologists.

In addition to her entrepreneurial endeavors, she has served as a regular contributor for HuffPost and currently serves on the Advisory Board for SXSW Pitch. She is a mentor for numerous entrepreneur communities including Praxis Labs and Echoing Green and is a very active voice on social media, with approximately 70K followers on LinkedIn alone.

Kelly has two hard-earned degrees, a BA from Clark Atlanta University and a PhD from Emory University, both in Political Science.


Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

Sure. My startup failed.

I had launched a tech-based apparel company back in 2014 called Bodyology. While we had some good traction, I lacked access to the information, capital and relationships I needed in order for it to scale. I learned that most people of color struggle to scale their businesses, so I launched Founders of Color in 2017 to help other Black and brown people avoid the same fate.

Earlier this year, Aniyia Williams of Black & Brown Founders and I decided that it was important to bring together leaders who ran similar organizations so that together we might strengthen our ecosystem. After 3 months, she and I along with a few dozen other such leaders launched the Black Innovation Alliance, which is dedicated to building the sort of ecosystem truly capable of helping Black innovators to thrive.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?

We’ve been blown over by the amount of support being directed to our cause — especially in the way of volunteers and in-kind support. There’s nothing like opening your inbox just days after launch and seeing major brands reaching out to support in quantifiable ways.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

We had a “hot mic” moment with a prominent press outlet when we first launched which included some “salty” language. It wasn’t funny then, but we learned a lot from it — specifically that all conversations with reporters are “on the record” whether you know it or not!

What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?

BIA is the first coalition of its kind. We launched in the midst of the Great COVID quarantine and what we’ve been able to accomplish in a relatively short period of time is relatively unheard of in our space. We’ve brought dozens of Black leaders together to advance powerful game-changing work and we’re excited to show the world all the ways we plan to do things differently.

Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?

Yes! We are looking to raise $1B in investment towards the Black Innovation Ecosystem over 10 years, with the goal being to raise the first $10 within the next 6 months. You can learn more about our vision for the investment here.

What advice would you give to other female leaders to help their team to thrive?

Love on people. Be generous. Be kind. Be gracious. Women in leadership get a bad wrap for being shrewd. It can be a two-edged sword because we’re also told that we shouldn’t be too vulnerable. Work to foster a healthy culture where everyone feels they have value and a voice. Give others the spotlight and watch them shine.

What advice would you give to other female leaders about the best way to manage a large team?

Delegate and trust people to lead. Make sure they have what they need to be successful and let them drive. They might not do it the way that you do it, but that’s okay. They might knock it out of the park. They might flame out. Either way, you learn something. If you’re lucky trust is built. Respect is forged. And when leading a team, both are priceless.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

When it comes to the Black Innovation Alliance, the props go to my co-convenor Aniyia Williams of Black & Brown Founders. I have never had a co-anything before. I’ve launched all my other ventures solo but having a partner in this thing has made all the difference in the world. We lean on each other a lot and our partnership has enabled us to not only keep the momentum going but stay sane along the way.

How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?

Our entire mission at BIA is just that — it’s about bringing more goodness to the world. We believe that Black innovation is undervalued and that Black people in the innovation economy are relegated to the margins. My work with Founders of Color and the brand building work I’ve done through social media over the years has created a platform that allows me to do this work at a different level and I am incredibly grateful for that.

What are your “3 Leadership Lessons I Learned From My Experience” and why. (Please share a story or example for each.)

Learn Your Customer, Inside/Out

It’s always great if you can create a product out of your own personal need, however it’s critical to bear in mind, you are not your customer. Neither are your relatives or your friends.

Take Competitor Research Seriously

If there is one thing that I hear most often from new founders, it’s that they don’t have any “real” competitors. Startup founders often believe they are the very first person to think of their idea and one of few, if not the only person out there doing it.

I always listen and nod in understanding, because I was there too. But the longer I was in business, the quicker I learned that there were competitors — companies out there who were doing something similar if not the exact same thing. However, they were small just like us and had simply been unable to penetrate the mainstream.

Believe me, you always have competitors. Even if no one does exactly what you do, there are firms that could easily pivot to do what you do if the demand presented itself. Therefore, when researching your competitors, go deep and wide. Don’t be afraid to reach out and ask questions of people doing something similar and finally, don’t be overly anxious to be the first to market. You know what they say… pioneers get shot, settlers get rich.

Focus on sales above all else

While focusing on sales might seem obvious, it is the biggest, most common mistake I see new founders make. Early on there is so much excitement and a tremendous amount of focus and resource placed on product development. Because you see incredible value in your idea, you tend to believe that others will see it too and be knocking down your door to get their hands on it. When you launch, and your product sits, you wonder what happened.

By the time I realized I needed a real sales strategy, I’d blown through most of my start-up capital. Quality SEO and marketing services do not come cheap and if you don’t know what you’re doing, you could actually do real harm to your brand.

What I ultimately learned is that it is much harder to get a product off the shelf than it is to get a product on the shelf. And if you don’t have a bonafide sales strategy, chances are you’re dead in the water.

So, here’s the good news, my mistakes don’t have to be yours. Learn from my pain! By adhering to these tips, you’ll already be ahead of the game and one step closer to making your startup dream a money-making reality.

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

We need a LOVE movement. We need to rediscover communal love and find ways to infuse love into every facet of modern day society. Some feel that love is weak, but I believe it is the ultimate super power when rightly deployed. BIA itself is an exercise in love.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

“Make no little plans; they have no magic to stir men’s blood and probably themselves will not be realized. Make big plans; aim high in hope and work, remembering that a noble, logical plan once recorded will never die.” — Daniel Burnham

I’ve never been interested in small dreams or small thinking. It’s a big reason why I’ve always been an entrepreneur because I’ve never been interested in walling off my ideas. I am most excited about our work at BIA because WE get to co-create something incredibly powerful together and it doesn’t have to look like anything that currently exists. We are planning the sort of bold and daring work capable of “stirring one’s blood” and that’s incredibly exciting.

Some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them 🙂

Oprah. Being on Super Soul Sunday with Oprah Winfrey as we review my NYT selling book (currently in the making) under the oaks outside her home is the ONLY thing on my imaginary vision board.

How can our readers connect with you on social media?

I’m at @iamkellyburton on LinkedIn, Instagram and Twitter.

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