A Conversation with Melissa Bradley, Founder & Managing Partner, 1863 Ventures
Since 2018, Ford Fund and 1863 Ventures have partnered on HERImpact, a pitch competition designed to help women social entrepreneurs scale their enterprises to increase impact and long-term sustainability. Entrepreneurs pitch their business plans for cash awards during the competition, which is adjudicated by a panel of representatives from Ford Motor Company,1863 Ventures, and successful women in business. HERImpact is helping build a network of women founders and entrepreneurs who can provide expertise, coaching and mentoring support to one another and in their communities.
Q: Melissa, how did 1863 Ventures begin?
A: I am a professor at Georgetown University and 1863 Ventures started as a student project. It began as a two-day entrepreneur conference to help historically marginalized small businesses. It has since blossomed into a national organization committed to responsible entrepreneurship while remaining deeply committed to our base in Washington, D.C.
Today, we serve over 3,200 New Majority founders (individuals who have been historically underestimated, including Black and Latino men and women) across the United States. We are sector agnostic — our founders' businesses are run within the business services sector, health and wellness, food and beverage, as well as beauty and fashion.
Q: What's the "why" behind 1863 Ventures?
A: 1863 Ventures is a business development organization committed to supporting New Majority founders to achieve $100B in new wealth by 2030. We help de-risk founders and advance them to become CEOs through our content, community, and access to capital. We do this work because founders of color are the fastest-growing segment of small businesses, and people of color will be the majority of the US population before 2055. We recognize the opportunity costs of not supporting founders of color.
Q: What inspires you about this work?
A: I am inspired daily by the tireless founders who see entrepreneurship as a path to wealth creation for themselves, their families, and their communities. The financial, emotional, and spiritual sacrifices of founders are significant when it comes to accessing capital, growing a viable business, and experiencing a liquidity event.
Q: How does an aspiring entrepreneur get involved with 1863 Ventures?
A: Business owners who are seeking to scale their business can apply to participate in our program. The internal team reviews each application. If selected, participants embark on a 4–6-week program to move from founder to CEO. It's rigorous, they attend regular training sessions, office hours, and complete homework. By the conclusion of this program, participants will have a revised business plan for growth. After graduation, participants join our alumni community to access mentorship, continued training, and support. At that point, they are also eligible to seek capital from our venture funds.
Q: You've had over 3200 graduates move through your programming since 2016. Can you share one success story that exemplifies 1863 Ventures' impact?
A: April Harris of Keeping You Sweet (a gluten-free and vegan bakery) came to us because she had just entered Whole Foods and wanted to expand and grow her business. After graduating from one of our programs, working with her for months, and investing in her business, April opened a brick and mortar in a mall and her products are available in Whole Foods' stores up and down the East coast.
Q: Are there ways that people can support 1863 Ventures and the work that you do?
A: We invite people to support our entrepreneurs by purchasing their products and services. We ask that interested parties follow us on socials @1863ventures and share the stories of our entrepreneurs. We ask that folks read our research to better understand the entrepreneurship path for founders of color. And finally sign up for our newsletter so you'll be notified about our annual Town Hall — all are welcome!