Above: Artists Celeste Cruz, Mariana Perez, and Ledia Mane work on a project at Elevated Thought, one of the organizations that has received a grant from the New Commonwealth Racial Equity and Social Justice Fund. Photo by Noelia Castillo/Elevated Thought

The high-profile deaths last year of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, Tony McDade, and George Floyd were not the first tragic outcomes of racial injustice in the United States to send shock waves across the globe. But in their wake—and in the midst of a pandemic that has hit communities of color hard—urgent calls for a long-overdue racial reckoning are inspiring innovative approaches to exposing and ending structural inequities in business and society.

Two new ventures led by HBS alumni are leveraging the power of philanthropy in the fight against racism. By retooling traditional philanthropic models in distinctive ways, the New Commonwealth Racial Equity and Social Justice Fund (NCF) and the Anti Racism Fund (ARF) are empowering changemakers within communities of color and forging community-business partnerships that support lasting change.

Greg Shell (MBA 2001)

Corey Thomas (MBA 2002)

Greg Shell (MBA 2001)

Corey Thomas (MBA 2002)

Greg Shell (MBA 2001) and Corey Thomas (MBA 2002) launched the NCF in June 2020, along with 17 other executives of color from leading Massachusetts corporations. Pursuing an innovative, state-focused approach, the fund specifically targets Black- and brown-led nonprofits closely tied to the people and problems in under-resourced Massachusetts communities.

Shell, a managing director at Bain Capital, says George Floyd’s brutal killing, the Black Lives Matter movement, and a pandemic that “has blown disparities in race and income wide open” created momentum for the NCF’s founding. Thomas, chairman and CEO of Rapid7, a cybersecurity and compliance solutions and services company, says that 19 founders launched the NCF, “but it could easily have been 100.” Among many Black and brown business leaders, conversations about the underfunding of nonprofits led by people of color had been building for some time.

“We’ve known that less than 2 percent of funding from the nation’s largest philanthropies is specifically targeted to the Black community,” notes Thomas. “The NCF is working to reverse this bias by backing organizations led by people from communities of color who include the voices of community members in their decision-making.”

Unknown to Big Funders
The NCF focuses on four pillars of underfunded structural challenges: policing and criminal justice reform; economic empowerment; health care equity; and youth education, empowerment, and civic engagement. Black and brown social entrepreneurs who work on these issues “usually aren’t well known to funders with big pockets,” explains Shell, “and big funders don’t often give large sums to people they don’t know. In addition to financial support, we add social capital by enhancing the professional development and visibility of executives of color in the not-for-profit sector.”

Contributions from individuals and corporations are welcomed. With seed money from its founders and multiyear pledges from companies and individuals, by June 2021, the fund had raised almost $30 million toward its $100 million goal. The first round of grants, totaling $1 million, was awarded to 20 local and regional organizations, with a focus on addressing urgent racial justice or pandemic-related challenges. Inaugural recipients include city-based groups such as African Community Education in Worcester, Brockton Interfaith Community, Elevated Thought in Lawrence, as well as statewide initiatives, such as Data for Black Lives, EdLaw Project, and Lawyers for Civil Rights. Grant decisions are made by representatives from the NCF’s core leadership group, who draw on a variety of firsthand experiences with systemic racism. In late June, the NCF plans to announce its second round of grants, totaling $2 million, to community groups across the Commonwealth.

Health care equity has personal relevance for Thomas, who has seen the credibility of women in his family questioned in medical settings. “Death rates from COVID-19 in communities of color illuminate the impact of race on health outcomes,” he notes, “but serious inequities have existed for generations.” In a statement released on April 8, Rochelle P. Walensky, MD, MPH, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, declared racism a serious public health threat.

Shell is a coalition builder and a longtime observer of “where human capital is invested and where it isn’t.” He grew up in New Bedford, one of a number of Massachusetts “gateway cities” left behind in the shift from manufacturing to knowledge-based economic growth. He notes that Kendall Square, the Seaport District, and the South End of Boston were transformed when businesses took hold after decades of disinvestment. “In the same way,” he stresses, “I believe the NCF can bring funders, nonprofits, and business leaders together to help communities of color across Massachusetts achieve social gains through economic investment.”

Seeding Progress
Like the Massachusetts-centered NCF, the nationally focused ARF began as a response to last spring’s racially charged tragedies and COVID-19’s disproportionate impact on communities of color. “Friends and acquaintances approached us wanting to know how to make an impact,” explains Kenneth Chenault (MBA 2019), who cofounded ARF with his brother Kevin Chenault (MBA 2021) and four friends, including Carter Lewis (MBA 2023). “We wondered that ourselves.”

Kenneth Chenault (MBA 2019)

Kevin Chenault (MBA 2021)

Kenneth Chenault (MBA 2019)

Kevin Chenault (MBA 2021)

To answer their question, the group inaugurated the ARF as a GoFundMe project that raised $40,000 within 12 hours. The fund has since evolved into a nonprofit that streamlines donations to a dynamic portfolio of organizations and develops partnerships across the United States that fight racism by promoting social change and that create opportunities for advancement in the Black community.

The ARF supports causes in four categories that are similar to the NCF’s: health and wellness access, community outreach and social justice advocacy, justice system reform, and education parity. Its past campaign, the Take Action Initiative, raised $400,000 for The Bail Project, the Black AIDS Institute, the Equal Justice Initiative, the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, and the Transgender Gender-Variant Intersex Project. ARF’s current Homecoming Initiative is raising money for four Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCU): Howard University, Florida A&M University, Spelman College, and Morehouse College. Additionally, in an ongoing effort to support BIPOC students in overcoming the barriers encountered in gaining entry to the fashion industry, ARF partnered with RAISE Fashion to establish a 10-week, paid summer internship program for rising juniors and seniors at the four HBCUs. Among the notable companies taking part in the program are Bloomingdale’s, Louis Vuitton, Pyer Moss, Cartier, and Saks Fifth Avenue.

“Widening opportunities and providing mentoring for young people of color are important aspects of the Homecoming Initiative,” notes Kenneth, a vice president at General Catalyst Partners. Commenting on this summer’s ARF-sponsored fashion industry internship program, Kevin stresses, “This isn’t only about giving money. We are planting seeds to increase diversity in recruiting, hiring, and professional development in meaningful and measurable ways.

“We want companies to start recognizing that diversity is an advantage for a firm,” he adds. “The demographics of our country are changing. Businesses that are slow to understand the value of a diverse workforce through all levels of the organization will be left behind.”

This article originally appeared in Alumni Stories.