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How Betting Big on Leaders of Color Builds Health Equity: Q&A with Echoing Green’s Cheryl Dorsey

What remains clear is the tremendous need and potential for social impact led by Black and diverse leaders—especially in health.
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Echoing Green President Cheryl L. Dorsey (left) with Caitlin Bristol, Director, Social Innovation, Johnson & Johnson

According to Rock Health's inaugural State of Diversity in Digital Health report, there is founder diversity in digital health innovation—but what's undoubtedly lacking is equal access to venture-backed investment. A decade of research has revealed ongoing funding gaps, discrimination and differences in social networks that block investment in talented Black innovators. Even as trends in venture funding for Black-founded startups began to increase in 2021, there is great concern over the significant drop being reported as of June this year. So while we wait to see how the numbers net out for 2022, what remains clear is the tremendous need and potential for social impact led by Black and diverse leaders—especially in health. 

Echoing Green has been drawing a spotlight to that potential for over 30 years. An early-stage funder of social entrepreneurs, it has invested millions in seed funding, training and support to create powerful social innovation, successfully building a network of best-in-class social entrepreneurs across the globe. Investing in Echoing Green’s bold Racial Equity Philanthropic Fund—which has also awarded $2.5 million in follow-on funding to 67 recipients since last year—is part of how Johnson & Johnson Impact Ventures, an impact investment vehicle within the Johnson & Johnson Foundation, is supporting a broad health impact ecosystem. 

I spoke with Echoing Green President Cheryl L. Dorsey about why supporting the pipeline of diverse leaders in health entrepreneurship is a powerful strategy for impact. 

CB: What role do diversity and equity play in Echoing Green's work to support emerging social entrepreneurs? How does Echoing Green place an intentional, explicit and sustained focus on advancing racial equity in entrepreneurship?

CD: Since 1987, Echoing Green has worked at the intersection of social innovation and social justice. That means we’re doubling down on a social innovation approach that raises up, identifies and invests in organizations by and for people of color and provides them with the resources they need to scale. Through our world-class Fellowship program, we’ve supported nearly 1,000 leaders advancing systems change and justice in climate, education and health—nationally and globally.

Over the years, we’ve built one of the most inclusive and diverse communities in the sector, bringing new voices into the movement and expanding the pipeline of Black, Indigenous and other leaders of color who are harnessing social innovation to address the world’s most urgent challenges. More than 75% of our U.S. Fellows are leaders of color, about 50% of our fellows identify as women, and 75% of our fellows are from the communities they serve. We celebrate the notion of proximity as a mission-critical asset. Leaders who are from the communities they serve and directly impacted by the issues they’re tackling have the expertise, relationships and dedication to design and deploy the most effective solutions for long-term social change.

CB: From your perspective, why is diversity and equity in entrepreneurship especially important when it comes to innovation in health?

CD: Diverse and equitable entrepreneurship is critical because diverse leaders are particularly able to spot and build solutions that advance change at the intersections. They understand how social identities like gender, race, sexuality, class and disability intersect and compound to shape people’s experiences in the world. They are also able to leverage innovation, systems thinking and cultural responsiveness to support the communities of color too often left behind by health systems.

Two outstanding examples of this in action come from Echoing Green Fellow Nasser Diallo, founder of Clinic+O, a platform improving access to healthcare for rural communities in West Africa, and Aideé Granados, founder of ROSAesROJO, an organization making wellness and cancer prevention accessible to Hispanic women and their families in the U.S.

CB: How is this being supported through Echoing Green and J&J Impact Ventures' work together?

CD: Together through the Racial Equity Philanthropic Fund, Echoing Green and J&J Impact Ventures are finding and elevating social entrepreneurs driving transformational social change in health and health equity.

Specifically, J&J Impact Ventures’ investment supports our ability to find and support Fellows at that critical intersection of health and racial equity. We both understand that leaders who work at that intersection have the ability and potential to change the entire field of healthcare in powerful ways.

It’s also an intersection that experiences incredible amounts of pressure and stress. That’s why our second main priority is to support Fellows holistically, in ways that go beyond funds only—like creative and comprehensive resources for resilience and well-being. 

Together, we’re supporting efforts to overcome health disparities caused by structural inequities in the healthcare system. We’re expanding and building the pipeline of leaders advancing health equity through social innovation.

CB: I love your personal story: you yourself were an Echoing Green Fellow, and now you lead the organization. As a Fellow, you worked to launch The Family Van, a community-based mobile health unit in Boston. What ties did you see between your role as an entrepreneur and the need for greater health equity?

CD: Receiving an Echoing Green Fellowship in 1992 changed my life and my world view. I was in medical school and had taken a year and half off to get a master’s in public policy when I began working with my mentor, Nancy Oriole, on The Family Van. At the time, Black babies were dying at three times the rate of white babies—just blocks away from some of the best medical institutions in the world.

But infant mortality is not so much a medical problem as a devastating socioeconomic challenge. We found that if you could link Black pregnant people to affordable, accessible, high-quality and culturally competent health services, you could reduce this racial disparity.

As a young entrepreneur, it was transformative both to see those realities up close and to join a larger network of change-makers dedicated to positive social change. I witnessed first-hand the impact of betting on innovative, proximate leaders with bold ideas getting at the root of systemic problems. Social entrepreneurship, which is all about creative destruction, is a powerful approach that allows you to leap over inequities and dismantle systems toward a more equitable and sustainable world.

CB: What should investors know about supporting Black-owned and -led businesses and Black entrepreneurs? How can investors best acknowledge, support and celebrate Black founders?

CD: Informed by the insight and stories of Fellows supported through our BMA Fellowship, our Invest in Black Leaders storytelling campaign calls for funders to resource Black communities and leaders beyond crisis. It also calls for them to provide the flexible, sustained and unrestricted funding Black leaders and their organizations need to endure and thrive.

Our newest report “Black Voices, Black Spaces: The Power of Black Innovation“ highlights three main action items for investors committed to supporting Black leaders and a more just and equitable field:

  1. Reframe the dominant narrative of what is social innovation and who is a social innovator by:
    - Elevating proximity and community buy-in when selecting and supporting initiatives that support Black communities.
    - Creating an ecosystem of support for Black leaders that elevates risk-taking as an asset to innovation.
  2. Commit to funding and supporting Black communities and Black leaders for the long-term by:
    - Listening and responding to Black leaders.
    - Dedicating resources and support that are highly flexible and responsive, including allocating space and time to build community and connection amongst the leaders.
    - Identifying and changing internal and funding practices that uphold inequity.
  3. Expand funding and support opportunities available to Black innovators by:
    - Investing in Black leaders with patient, risk-tolerant, substantial and reliable financial support that prioritizes innovation as the leader and community define it.
    - Partnering with and supporting institutions led by Black, Indigenous, and leaders of color that have long-term, robust and authentic relationships with Black leaders and communities.
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Learn about other ways Johnson & Johnson is working to eradicate racial and social injustice as a public health threat through Our Race to Health Equity, a $100 million commitment to promoting health equity solutions.

Read more about the Echoing Green Fellows’ work and what investors can do to support them here.