Communities creating wealth

New Houston fintech platform aims to close the wealth gap in Texas

Equiliberty is an app with a mission to create generational and community-driven wealth. Photo via Getty Images

Systemic and institutional racism have been constants in the history of the United States. Despite protests in response to police violence against Black Americans and last summer's skyrocket sales of anti-racism books, awareness of racial history and inequalities are still lacking — especially when it comes to wealth.

Houstonian Phillip Yates is all too familiar with the uneven economic playing field historical injustices and racial inequality has sowed.

Prior to the end of slavery, the Homestead Act of 1862 gave U.S. citizens a huge commodity — land. Nearly 70 years later, banks and mortgage lenders further segregated neighborhoods by refusing loans to creditworthy Black Americans due to their race and neighborhood. And after centuries of economic disparity, the Society for Human Resource Management reports that Black men and women still make less than their white male colleagues.

Yates, a Houston-area attorney, envisioned a company that could solve the societal problems that perpetuate poverty. He started Equiliberty, a technology company that's part financial resource and part social network, to help provide underrepresented individuals with educational resources to secure financial success and a space to use their talents to create community-driven wealth.

The platform provides business development services, educational resources, access to capital, and mentorship to help users find financial independence.

Yates' time as a program coordinator with the Houston Area Urban League Entrepreneurship Center also helped inspire his vision. During his time at the center, he co-created the organization's Small Business Development University.

According to the company's website, Equiliberty's vision is to show "communities of creators and makers how to use their existing resources and talents to grow into thriving businesses, create jobs, develop strong local economies and contribute to global prosperity."

"When I created Equiliberty, I envisioned a world where everybody has access to mentors," said Yates in a press release. "I know firsthand the importance of having a supportive network and community dedicated to your success."

Users can have the opportunity to build connections and find mentors using Equiliberty's in-platform messaging and video chat options, and networking opportunities.

Historic marginalization isn't the only obstacle in the way of wealth equality. Awareness is just as crucial.

A 2019 study found that Americans severely underestimated racial economic equality and thought the 2016 Black-white wealth gap was 80 percent smaller than it was. Recently, the Brookings Institution found that the average white family in America had a net worth of $171,000 — almost 10 times as much as the average Black family's net worth of $17,150 in 2016.

In addition to its launch, the fintech startup kicked off a concurrent campaign, BlkTheGap. The initiative is a call-to-action for community leaders, business owners, government officials, financial institutions and others to close the historic wealth gap in capital markets and support Black communities.

In a press release shared with InnovationMap, Yates states that he's "witnessed far too many people make the sacrifice for a better life only to see their dreams deferred, or in some cases, die at the graveyard, due to lack of access to capital and other resources needed to own financial assets and grow wealth in our economy."

"Where [investment apps] Robinhood, Stash and Acorn have it made it easier for the everyday person to begin investing in stocks, Equiliberty will make it possible for communities to invest in themselves," he said.

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Building Houston

 
 

Kelly Avant, investment associate at Houston-based Mercury Fund, shares how and why she made her way into the venture capital arena. Photo courtesy of Mercury

Kelly Avant didn't exactly pave a linear career path for herself. After majoring in gender studies, volunteering in the Peace Corps, and even attending law school — she identified a way to make a bigger impact: venture capital.

"VC is an awesome way to shape the future in a more positive way because you literally get to wire money to the most innovative thinkers, who are building solutions to the world’s problems," Avant tells InnovationMap.

Avant joined the Mercury Fund team last year as an MBA associate before joining full time as investment associate. Now, after completing her MBA from Rice University this month, Avant tells InnovationMap why she's excited about this new career in investment in a Q&A.

InnovationMap: From law school and the peace corps, what drew you to start a career in the VC world?

Kelly Avant: I graduated from Rice University with an MBA, starting scouting for an investment firm in my first year, and by the summer after my first year I was essentially working full-time interning with Mercury. But, I like to tell people about my undergraduate degree in gender studies and rhetoric from a little ski college in Colorado. If you meet someone else in venture capital with a degree in gender studies, please connect us, but I think I might be the only one. I’ll spare you what I used to think — and say — about business students, but I have really come full circle.

I always thought I would work in a nonprofit space, but after serving in Cambodia with the Peace Corps, working for the National Domestic Violence Hotline, and briefly attending Emory Law School with the intention of becoming a civil rights lawyer.I found that time and time again the root of the problem was a lack of resources. The world’s problems were not going to be solved with my idealism alone.

The problem with operating as a nonprofit in a capitalism is you basically always pandering to the interests of the donors. The NFL was a key sponsor of The National Domestic Violence Hotline. The United States has a complicated, to put it lightly, relationship with Cambodia and Vietnam. It became pretty clear that the donor/nonprofit relationship was oftentimes putting the wrong party in the driver’s seat. I was, and still am, very interested in alternative financing for nonprofits. I became convinced that the most exciting businesses were building solutions to the world’s problems while also turning a profit, which allows them to survive to have a sustainable positive impact.

VC is an awesome way to shape the future in a more positive way because you literally get to wire money to the most innovative thinkers, who are building solutions to the world’s problems.

IM: What are some companies you’re excited about?

KA: There are a couple super interesting founders I’ve met directly engaging with . To name a few: CiviTech, DonateStock, and Polco.

I’m very proud to work on mercury investments like Houston’s own, Topl, which has built an extremely lightweight and energy efficient Blockchain that enables tracking of ethical supply chains from the initial interaction.
I’m also excited about mercury’s investment in Zirtue, which enables relationship based peer to peer lending to solve the massive problem of predatory payday loans.

We have so many awesome founders in our portfolio. The best part about working in VC is meeting passionate innovators every day. I get excited to go to work everyday and help them to build better solutions.

IM: Why are you so passionate about bringing diversity and inclusion into Mercury?

KA: I love working with exciting, highly capable, super smart people. That category includes so many people who have been historically excluded. As an investment team member at Mercury, I do have a voice, and I have an obligation to use that voice to speak highly of the best people in rooms of influence.

IM: With your new role, what are you most focused on?

KA: In my new role, I am identifying and researching high potential investments. We’re building out a Mercury educational series to lift the veil of VC. We want to facilitate a series that gives all founders the basic skills to pass VC due diligence and have the opportunity to build the next innovative companies. My goal is ultimately to produce the best returns possible for our investors, and we can’t accomplish that goal unless we’re building out resources to meet the best founders and help them grow.

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This conversation has been edited for brevity and clarity.

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