As the wealth gap grows, LITE Memphis helps Black and Latinx teens launch their own businesses

If a teenager is suddenly struck with a brilliant business idea, they're far less likely than an adult to have the knowledge, skills, and cash to get it off the ground. 

That's especially true for Black and Latinx teens, who are less likely than whites to own their own businesses as adults and are also less likely to land paid internships, work in the highest-paying fields, and move into upper management when working for someone else.

It's not a matter of personal failings; Asian and white families have more wealth and are more likely to have the resources and connections to support a budding entrepreneur or professional. 

"We know that a lot of startups, if you can't get funding from the bank, you will usually rely on your friends and family. Well, the problem with most African American and Latinx students is their families don't have the money to help them launch their venture," said LITE Memphis Executive Director Lakethia Glenn.

LITE Memphis wants to change that. 

The nonprofit is working to build wealth in Black and Latinx communities by providing training, internship placements, funding, and other resources at no cost to help teens and young adults become their own bosses or secure high-wage jobs as business leaders. 

"We help them with the marketing and branding, identifying their target audience, then getting the product to market," said Glenn. 

But it's connections and funding, she said, that make the biggest difference. 

"It is fairly difficult to sustain these [entrepreneurial] opportunities when you don't have that," said Glenn. "Or, and I must say and be very candid here, when you can't get bank funding because you've walked into the bank as a Black or Brown person and faced a whole nother set of challenges before you can get the funding you need to continue your business."

The organization assists with launching around 80 ventures a year helmed by young Black and Latinx entrepreneurs in the Mid-South and has supported 356 ventures total since its founding in 2013. Glenn said they serve another 1,200 students annually through their entrepreneurial workshops on topics ranging from accounting to design thinking. 

Their data shows 90% of their students see long-term growth in career skills.

The 16-week Finalist Program leads students through the basics of entrepreneurship and business leadership and helps them develop their business ideas. LITE continues to work with its finalists through their college years with its Innovation Fellows program. In total, there's a potential for eight full years of business and career support.  

"If they continue to go on with their businesses or even if they don't, they go into the Innovation Fellows alumni pool, which wraps them in support," said Innovation Fellowship Coordinator Anisah Karim. 

Glenn said the COVID-19 pandemic, which is widening the racial wealth gap, has made their work to close that gap more necessary than ever, but it's also allowed them to expand their reach beyond Shelby County and northern Mississippi with virtual programming. They recently graduated their first Finalist Program cohort out of Nashville.

The pandemic has also inspired new business ideas for their students, including 3-D-printed door pulls for hands-free opening, mask design, and a weight loss and healthy living app.

Continue reading for more on the Finalist Program and workshop enrollment. 
LITE Memphis Finalists and Fellows sell their products at an International Women's Day event. (LITE Memphis)
Innovation Fellow Jaylon McCarley was a member of the Finalist Program's spring 2020 cohort.

"They taught us how to manage our money and manage our time," he said. "I can go on and on about how much they taught me."

Glenn describes McCarley as a natural leader, quick to help others, and a dedicated brand ambassador who's made appearances on television and radio promoting his business and LITE Memphis programming.
LITE Memphis Innovation Fellow Jaylon McCarley models a custom hoodie and pants from his fashion and lifestyle brand, Greatness Gang. (LITE Memphis)
The Germantown High School senior founded a fashion and lifestyle brand, Greatness Gang, with support from his family and LITE. 

"We just want to make our customers feel like the best versions of themselves," said McCarley. 

He hopes his business and his experiences show young, Black entrepreneurs like him that they can be successful in pursuing their creative passions and business ideas.

"Nowadays, [there are] more ways for people to express themselves, and I really just want young, Black people to really use those opportunities and uplift them to do good things, especially in the Memphis community," he said. 

McCarley has big plans for his brand and future, and LITE will be beside him for the next few years. He wants to see Greatness Gang become a household name with retail shops around the globe. He's interested in shoe design and wants to break into public speaking, despite a bad case of stage fright.

"I don't want that to be something that holds me back from telling my story," he said. 

Sign Up, Step Up 
The Finalist Program is currently taking applications for its fall 2021 cohort. The enrollment period ends June 15. This program and the post-training Innovation Fellows program are for Black and Latinx students who are at least 16 years old and in the 10th grade in the 2021-22 school year. Learn more here

All Finalist Program participants receive startup funding, but the program culminates in a pitch night event where students compete for additional investment dollars.

The current spring 2021 cohort will pitch their business ideas virtually on June 10 at 5:00 p.m. Audience members and a panel of judges will decide the winner. Teens interested in the Finalist Program are encouraged to tune in. Learn more and register to watch here.

In July, LITE Memphis will host virtual, two-day workshops that will teach project management, problem solving, communication, organization, and goal-setting skills through interactive, small group activities. They are open to any student in grades 10 through 12 in the upcoming school year. Students can register here for the Thursday-Friday sessions.

The organization is funded primary by local and national foundations and by individual donors and volunteers. They currently have a six-person staff and around 40 volunteers but are seeking new volunteers to help with their summer and fall programming. Anyone 18 years of age or older can serve as a mentor, check student's work, help them research their business, act as a consumer voice, and more.

Find more about volunteering here and donate to support LITE Memphis' work here

Business owners interested in offering internships can email [email protected]

Why Internships Matter
Glenn said LITE was created after its founder studied the vast gap between the number of Black Memphians and the amount of revenue generated by Black-owned businesses.

Memphis is majority-Black, but an analysis in 2020 by the Memphis Business Journal showed white-owned businesses had 46 times the sales of Black-owned businesses and there were nearly 12 times more white-owned businesses.

Glenn said success boils down to two things: proximity to opportunity and doing the work to get there. When it comes to opportunities, internships can make a career.

They provide hands on experience, but they also bring connections and lead to permanent jobs. One study from the National Association of Colleges and Employers showed over 70% of employers offer their interns full-time jobs. Some 56% of interns get a full-time job from their internship placement. 

But not all internships are created equal, and minorities — Black and Latinx people, as well as women across race and ethnicity — are less likely to get a paid internship. 

"The biggest challenge with Black and Brown students is that, a lot of times, the internships aren't paid," said Glenn. "And because of their family's inability to support that, they can't take unpaid internships."

Glenn said Black and Latinx families often can't support their loved one through an unpaid internship, and those students are also less likely to know how to navigate the internship process, like where to apply, how to apply, who to talk to. 

All of LITE Memphis' internships are paid by LITE, the employer, or both.

Their interns have worked for Memphis Filmworks, Memphis Redbirds, Cynthia Daniels & Co., Utopian Animal Hospital, The Chiro Place, AgLaunch, KJ Management, Purist cancer research lab, Middle Tennessee Marketing, the Detroit College Access Network, and others. 

Karim coordinates LITE's internship partnerships and works with their Innovation Fellows to build out their businesses and secure paid internships after graduating from the Finalist Program. They have 40 students currently in internships, and she estimates they'll have 400 alumni in their fellowship pool by the end of the year. 

Karim is a former fellow herself and got an internship directly out of high school through LITE. 

She said the first-hand experience she gained helped her secure a higher-paying job than the more common alternatives for recent high school grads, like retail or food service. There are also cultural difference in the high-paying, salaried jobs that often follow internships versus the lower-paying, hourly jobs that are disproportionately staffed by Black and Latinx workers. 

As an intern, Karim's opinions were sought out and valued and her health was made a priority over the work when she got sick. She felt like she was part of a team with a common goal and was trusted to do her part to get the work done. 

"It makes a difference," she Karim. "You feel, I guess in a way, validated."

"I have a respect for everyone and the jobs that they do, but we have a mission to create generational wealth for our students and it starts with putting them in places where their talents are amplified and not suppressed," she continued.

Karim said when she thinks about LITE's larger impact, she sees connections — connections to internships but also to a larger shift in generational wealth. 

"When I see 400 students, I see 400 families. And when I see 400 families, I see at least two other families connected to them. It's just a web of people who are affected by this one student," she said.
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Read more articles by Cole Bradley.

Cole Bradley is a native Memphian and graduate of the University of Memphis. Cole's worked locally as a researcher and community engagement strategist and began contributing to High Ground in Jan 2017.