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CHRIS MOTLEY
// Mentor Spaces

Chris Motley grew up on the South Side of Chicago and was fortunate to be a part of organizations that helped put him on a path to access educational opportunities that he may not have experienced on his own. That access to education led him to Columbia University in New York City for college and then to his first job at Goldman Sachs. Chris learned a lot on Wall Street and after five years, was ready to try his hand at building a company. “When you grow up poor and you start to make more money than you thought you would ever make (the threshold is not that high), your perspective on risk is very different. For me, I knew that I could work at a high level 

and compete with the smartest people in the world while making a nice living. It wasn’t that much risk to start a business. If it didn’t work out, I would go to business school and go back to the same industry I had left. That’s a privilege.”

"I started to become obsessed with trying to answer the question: How does one who is historically underserved navigate to careers with as little friction as possible?"

He launched his entrepreneurial journey by starting a company in the manufacturing space that helped provide more job opportunities for people in third world countries. As Chris was growing this company, he continued to be frustrated by the fact that he was in the room with top executives from large companies and was the only person of color. “I started to become obsessed with trying to answer the question: How does one who is historically underserved navigate to careers with as little friction as possible?”.

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Chris Motley, helping to prepare the next generation of young, diverse leaders through mentorship and opportunity, with his company Mentor Spaces.

That was the drive and inspiration for the next company Chris founded. Better Weekdays is a technology company that has always been focused around removing friction for underrepresented communities. Over the last few years, as Chris has continued to lead Better Weekdays, it became clear that a big barrier in removing friction for underrepresented individuals is a lack of confidence, due in part to a lack of social capital. “You simply don’t know people who can explain, describe or introduce you to people and opportunities that can significantly help to advance your career.” With that understanding and after launching many products over the years, it was time for a very different solution. Chris and his team developed Mentor Spaces, a scalable mentorship platform and community that connects underrepresented people who have very little understanding about career pathways with people who are actually doing those jobs, in a way that helps to demystify career paths, functional roles and more.

Chris’s identity has profoundly impacted the way he has gone about this work. “People who come from underserved communities, to a certain extent face a double edged sword. On one hand, you’ve navigated highly nuanced situations to literally survive, which develops very unique skills and attitudes that are really important to have as an entrepreneur. However, it also amplifies absolutely everything. Your identity makes it that much more lonely to be an entrepreneur because you are the minority of the minority. Your successes are amplified because you become a very small percentage of people who made it out while your failures now fall into someone’s pre-existing negative stereotype. Or you feel like you failed an entire community of people, which isn’t fair but you still feel that way.” Chris tries to lean into this added pressure and uses it as a source of strength versus focusing on the negativity. 

We all know that starting a business is incredibly difficult for anyone. Building a business that has a social impact component while being a Black Founder makes it even harder. “One of the things that I think we are all aware of, as entrepreneurs of color, is that we are already less-resourced than everyone else and because we are something different, everything takes longer for us. If you’re a Founder of color, it takes you longer to recruit team members, earn customer’s trust, establish distribution deals, secure funding, etc. — everything takes longer because you don’t look like who people are used to seeing in these rooms.”

"If we, as underrepresented entrepreneurs, aren't focusing on the issues that face our communities, who will? That's the weight of it — it's personal."

Prior to launching his first business, Chris was on a great trajectory (financially and career growth) and could have certainly stayed in his stable job. However, once he identified a gap and a whole community of people who could benefit, he knew he had to at least try his hand at entrepreneurship. “If we, as underrepresented entrepreneurs, aren’t focusing on the issues that face our communities, who will? That’s the weight of it — it’s personal.” 

So how can we, as community leaders, help Black entrepreneurs like Chris succeed? Chris says we have to stop putting all entrepreneurs in the same box. Simply put, Black entrepreneurs (and those from other underrepresented communities), have different lived experiences, face barriers daily and start off several steps behind white entrepreneurs which leads to every process of entrepreneurship taking more time for Black entrepreneurs. There are additional things required to generate the same profit and growth results for entrepreneurs of color, yet well-intentioned investors still expect Black entrepreneurs to generate the same growth in the same amount of time. When they don’t, it’s labeled as a negative signal. “My suggestion is for investors to consider the odds of Black entrepreneurs making it to the other side of the negotiation table with them as an investor, customer, partner. It resembles the proof points of resiliency and acumen required for successful leaders.”

Prior to launching his first business, Chris was on a great trajectory (financially and career growth) and could have certainly stayed in his stable job. However, once he identified a gap and a whole community of people who could benefit, he knew he had to at least try his hand at entrepreneurship. “If we, as underrepresented entrepreneurs, aren’t focusing on the issues that face our communities, who will? That’s the weight of it — it’s personal.” 

So how can we, as community leaders, help Black entrepreneurs like Chris succeed? Chris says we have to stop putting all entrepreneurs in the same box. Simply put, Black entrepreneurs (and those from other underrepresented communities), have different lived experiences, face barriers daily and start off several steps behind white entrepreneurs which leads to every process of entrepreneurship taking more time for Black entrepreneurs. There are additional things required to generate the same profit and growth results for entrepreneurs of color, yet well-intentioned investors still expect Black entrepreneurs to generate the same growth in the same amount of time. When they don’t, it’s labeled as a negative signal. “My suggestion is for investors to consider the odds of Black entrepreneurs making it to the other side of the negotiation table with them as an investor, customer, partner. It resembles the proof points of resiliency and acumen required for successful leaders.”

Prior to launching his first business, Chris was on a great trajectory (financially and career growth) and could have certainly stayed in his stable job. However, once he identified a gap and a whole community of people who could benefit, he knew he had to at least try his hand at entrepreneurship. “If we, as underrepresented entrepreneurs, aren’t focusing on the issues that face our communities, who will? That’s the weight of it — it’s personal.” 

So how can we, as community leaders, help Black entrepreneurs like Chris succeed? Chris says we have to stop putting all entrepreneurs in the same box. Simply put, Black entrepreneurs (and those from other underrepresented communities), have different lived experiences, face barriers daily and start off several steps behind white entrepreneurs which leads to every process of entrepreneurship taking more time for Black entrepreneurs. There are additional things required to generate the same profit and growth results for entrepreneurs of color, yet well-intentioned investors still expect Black entrepreneurs to generate the same growth in the same amount of time. When they don’t, it’s labeled as a negative signal. “My suggestion is for investors to consider the odds of Black entrepreneurs making it to the other side of the negotiation table with them as an investor, customer, partner. It resembles the proof points of resiliency and acumen required for successful leaders.”

"Entrepreneurs of color will tend to build solutions that tackle social problems, in for profit ways. That, in and of itself, takes a long time to make happen. When you're a Black entrepreneur, everything takes longer for you because you don't have this privilege that others do.

There are several industries (like consumer banking) changing their underwriting practices to increase home ownership among people of color, because they recognize there are systemic barriers preventing the outcomes they want to see. Investors and funders need to learn from these industries and do the same, Chris says. “Entrepreneurs of color will tend to build solutions that tackle social problems, in for profit ways. That, in and of itself, takes a long time to make happen. When you’re a Black entrepreneur, everything takes longer for you because you don’t have this privilege that others do. You are questioned more about everything — your due diligence is going to look different, investors are going to want to see more traction, etc because your context is simply different.” 

Chris is incredibly motivated to help companies improve their DEI initiatives, which is why he continues to create solutions that will ultimately benefit underrepresented communities and the organizations that want to better attract, hire and retain them. However, without major changes, we will continue to set Black entrepreneurs like Chris back. “Sometimes I sincerely wish that the people who really want to see change would approach a Black entrepreneur, write a check, and encourage us to feel 1000% comfortable talking about our lived experiences in an authentic way to help move the conversation forward because right now the truth is, we can’t. There’s a perception that there is no incentive to do it and we have businesses to run. What’s ironic is that our lived experience is what gives us the unique insight that fuels our ideas and innovations but we don’t get credit for that experience in the way that one would prefer a seasoned practitioner over a novice with good intentions. There are more non-underrepresented entrepreneurs who get more funding to tackle issues in underrepresented communities than there are who’ve successfully navigated through those very issues. That is the burden we carry as Black entrepreneurs. It’s not just about making your company successful — it’s about more than that.” 

Chris encourages investors and others supporting entrepreneurs to really examine their processes, terms and biases when engaging with underrepresented entrepreneurs. If we keep doing things the way we’re doing them, nothing is going to change. He is hopeful that there are many people and organizations eager to continue and start conversations that will lead to the change we need.

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Please consider learning more about Mentor Spaces and spreading the word with those who may have interest in learning more. Chris and his wife live in Denver and are strong advocates for social change. If you have connections, resources or ideas for Chris, connect with him directly on LinkedIn. Chris completed his Pipeline Fellowship year in 2016 and is now an active Member of the organization.