Created In Partnership With Kim Crawford

Why “Social Capital” Is So Important, According To Black Girl Ventures’ Founder

In preparation for Camp Kim — the ultimate self-care-meets-summer-camp-event-series hosted by Refinery29, Kim Crawford Wines, and Black Girl Ventures — we sat down with BGV founder Shelly “Omi” Bell to explore what it takes to be a successful leader and the importance of social capital, camaraderie, and self-care for Black and brown women in business. Keep reading to hear Bell’s story, then gear up for a night of community-building (and wine!) with Camp Kim. RSVP for an activation near you ASAP — next up is our Dallas installment on 6/22.
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“I’ve lived a lot of lives.”
Shelly "Omi" Bell, evidently, has more lives than a cat — her journey includes a teenage pregnancy and roles in education, computer science, and workforce development. And after being laid off for the second time, she turned to a psychic hotline for advice.
“The woman told me, ‘You’re going to find that thing that you want to do, and you will get the money for it — and you’re not going to be with that guy,'" she recalls. “That guy” was her fiancé.
In the next two months, her entire life flipped upside down: Her engagement ended, leaving her on public assistance as a single parent of three, which she considers her “rock bottom.” So she went into fight mode, even pitching a tent in her living room to rent on Airbnb for extra income. Eventually, she began printing T-shirts. After early ideas flopped, her “Made by a Black Woman” designs took off, fueled by word of mouth, social media, media placements, and an eye-catching and impactful patented design modeled after the “Made in America” logo.
Even though her business was thriving, she realized the “good money” wasn’t enough to keep her motivated — she deeply craved community. When she learned in 2018 that over 2.4 million businesses were owned by Black women nationally, yet they were receiving less than 1% of venture capital, she decided to do something about it. She took her inspiration to event organizing platform Meetup, creating a pitch event with a small admittance fee, and crammed 30 women into a room to discuss business and ways in which to support each other’s endeavors. Then and there, the Black Girl Ventures seed was planted.
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Today, Black Girl Ventures’ mission is to provide Black-and-brown-identifying founders access to community, capital, and capacity to meet their entrepreneurial and business milestones. In the six years since its inception, it has funded approximately 300 women founders and 3,000 jobs, generating $10 million in revenue. The chapters stretch across seven cities nationwide, and the organization now works directly with several major corporations.
Bell has since graced stages across the country to share the importance of social capital, positioning herself as a proven disruption strategist — and she’s just getting started. Ahead, she discusses the importance of relationships, telling and untelling our stories, and why self-care — including kicking back over some wine — is a crucial practice for Black and brown women in business.
You call yourself a disruption strategist. How has that term come to define your work?
“Disruption is a word that the industry carries and understands: [The work I do] doesn’t feel like disruption, [the strategies] just make sense. I was always that person to want to do things differently, and I’ve never been a ‘great employee.’
“When I was working in workforce development, I had gone from being a trainer to managing a multi-million-dollar contract as a program manager. I was looking at the workflow, and I realized that we were doing it all wrong — no one understood the contract, and the teams were off. I wanted to move into a triage plan, meaning serving the people with the most need first, and I initially got pushback. But when I finally got the ‘yes’ and changed things — changed the metrics, segmented the teams — we started making money. I realized then that I was on to something. That’s the most concrete example of my evolution into disruption.”
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Looking back, despite the twists and turns, do you see a common thread that exists throughout your work?
“All the roles I’ve had gave me the opportunity to observe all parts of the human condition, which is interesting considering the work I do now. I am about building authentic relationships. The ways I create and build have always remained the same.”
Speaking on relationships, what is the most common pain point you encounter with the women you meet through Black Girl Ventures?
“Social capital! Social capital is rooted in the fact that all money comes through building relationships; it’s the way money moves. When I meet these women, they say, ‘I don’t know anybody!’ They don’t know about capital, grants, community, or mentorship — plus, capital and philanthropy have their own language. When they come to Black Girl Ventures, they learn how to articulate and move through this language through collaboration. More so, the fellowship provides them with nine months of development where they get to exercise leadership and practical application.”
What have you learned throughout your career, and how has it helped you evolve as a leader?
‘Yesterday’s price is not today’s price!’ I also think in terms of adding value: When growing a company, you sometimes only think about the programming or the physical thing, but it’s also essential to think about ways to add value after it is built.
Research also shows that the more money you make, the less empathetic you become, so I have to stay curious — researching, learning, and growing. My staff will tell you I’m now way more patient. It’s also important to recognize when you need those break moments when you don’t always have the capacity [to get it all done].”
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On the topic of breaks, what can we anticipate with Camp Kim? What makes this the perfect partnership?
“Coming to the table with people who say, ‘We all need a break, let’s have a little fun,’ is important. As you’re building and scaling, this kind of partnership is essential, and it aligns with our values of ‘community or nothing.’ The Camp Kim initiative also feels so timely; it’s like we’re getting our legs back underneath us coming out of the pandemic.”
Why is self-care within a safe community vital for Black and brown women?
“Black women never get a chance to rest. When you’re part of a marginalized community, the weight carries through generations. Thoughts around mental health are evolving, but pockets still insist that something is ‘wrong’ with you if you need rest or therapy. These spaces we’re creating are intimate. Self-care is also caring for one another, engaging in celebration and camaraderie, and realizing that you’re not alone, that somebody else cares, and that experiences matter. Lots of times, when you’re marginalized and you feel alone, you work twice as hard to be viewed as just as great. We need moments to tap out, network, and find spaces to belong.”
What does self-care look and feel like for you?
“Non-existent [laughs]. I am taking the next few weeks lightly; I’m tired, and that’s not how I want to be in the world. I need to check in with how I want to be and close that gap between my now and later, turn off my fight or flight in order to move from surviving to thriving. I’m hard-driven about success, and I’m usually not that person [to rest]. But what got me here won’t take me to the next level — it’s about me choosing my self-disruption over my self-destruction.”
Have you thought about what comes next after your respite?
“More storytelling across mixed media, images, graphics, and film. I want to engage in more stories, and I want to be part of telling more people's stories.”
In order to tell stories, sometimes you have to untell a story or shed a narrative. What narratives have you had to let go of in order to get here, and what is the new Omi story you’d like to tell?
“The teen mom story of ‘You ain't gonna make it, and no one will ever marry or work with you’ had to be untold. In the church I grew up in, you couldn’t undo that wrong unless you got married, and that mindset led to unfortunate relationships and feeling unworthy. It also put me in a perpetual fight, in overdrive, where I was always trying to prove that I would be more. I have no reason to feed this narrative anymore. Feeling like you have to fight does not make you a thought leader, charismatic, or empathetic. I’m separating from that narrative because fighters take the pain and blows. I’m moving from the survival fight mindset to being an athlete — I work out to win.”
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