How This Founder’s Mid-Pandemic Pivot Is Helping Young Black And Latinx Workers Face An Uncertain Future
In the thick of a global pandemic might not seem like the best time to relaunch a startup, but for Chris Motley, Mentor Spaces CEO, it refined his vision. Countless meetings throughout January and February helped Motley determine that connecting young professionals of color with job opportunities wasn’t enough. By March, Motley had pivoted to connecting mentors with protégés and the collective experience of soft-skill development.
Mentor Spaces (formerly The Whether) launched in 2017 as a job-candidate screening and recruiting company. Once candidates were hired, the relationship ended. Motley wanted to change that. What’s remained consistent is his commitment to helping Black and Latinx youth develop confidence and to dream bigger.
“One of the key pain points of young people of color, and I mean underrepresented Black and Latinx communities, is a lack of confidence,” Motley, 39, tells Forbes. That lack of confidence stems from the “network gap,” Motley explains. If young people starting their careers don’t connect with others experienced in their chosen field, whether it’s journalism, technology or something else, they may never understand the range of opportunities to pursue. Motley wants to facilitate those relationships, especially now when the opportunity to meet new people is especially limited.
The new Mentor Spaces platform launches as a native mobile application this fall with the goal of filling the network gap through group mentorship. A protégé or mentee can submit a question to a group organized around various areas of interest, skills or industries and be paired with a mentor to have it answered.
While Mentor Space still earns revenue through company subscriptions, the mentoring platform is free for the 10,000 students and young professionals currently on the platform. Mentor Spaces works with several large companies and historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs), including a new partnership with Spelman College. Since Covid-19 and the killing of George Floyd, the demand for the platform has skyrocketed, Motley says.
“Universities are more aggressively focused on connecting students with pathways to employment,” Motley says. Because of the quarantine, the future of job fairs and in-person career counseling is limited and universities “can’t do what they’re traditionally used to doing,” Motley says. “They are way more active in promoting Mentor Spaces.”
Before Covid-19, the job market was tenuous for Black and Latinx workers. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, twice as many Black or African American workers were unemployed than whites in the second half of 2019—6.1% and 3.1%, respectively. The crisis has only exacerbated unemployment. In the wake of Covid-19, Latinx workers have fared the worst, reporting a 16.7% unemployment rate for the second half of 2020. Whites weren’t far behind but still reported the lowest unemployment of 12%. There is also the wage gap in which Black and Latinx workers continue to earn less than white men. Further, Black people are far more likely to die from Covid-19 than other races.
Seemingly insurmountable obstacles are just a part of the journey for Motley.
A first-generation college graduate born to a 13-year-old single mother on Chicago’s South Side, Motley says the guiding principle of Mentor Spaces harks back to something a reverend told him as a child—that “a kid can’t be who he or she hasn’t seen.”
“When your back is against the wall and you’re trying to figure out how to navigate, you tend to be reminded of these stories,” says Motley, who credits his mom with inspiring him. “She would bring back all these stories that helped me realize the answer to this problem is my own experience.”
Motley’s own network gap closed when he received the opportunity to attend Darlington School a private boarding school through A Better Chance, a nonprofit that assists young people of color in gaining admission to top college preparatory schools. He also worked with Inroads, which helps minority youth gain experience in corporate environments, and the LEAD Program, a nonprofit focused on higher education and leadership development. These connections eventually lead him to Columbia University and a career as a commodities trader at Goldman Sachs.
Motley bridged the funding chasm that exists for Black founders by uprooting his company from Chicago to St. Louis, hoping to grab the attention of David Steward, a Black billionaire and founder of tech solutions provider World Wide Technology, which is headquartered in that city. It worked.
“Going to VCs isn’t necessarily the only path,” Motley says. “I wanted investors who took the entrepreneurial journey as an African American because there’s so much I don’t have to explain to them, and that is very comforting. It’s not just that they had capital but it was the fact that they understand my narrative.”
To date, Steward, the Gates Foundation and other investors like Chicago-based PFG Group have invested a total of $6.5 million in Mentor Spaces.
“This is a great opportunity at a great time,” Clyde Burks, PFG Group managing director, says of Mentor Spaces. “This version of the business was thought out before George Floyd’s death and in the aftermath, diversity and inclusion are at the highest point they’ve ever been with corporations stating and truly wanting to do better in that area. It could be the premier platform for corporations seeking a tool to assist in that ability to identify, hire, retain and promote a diverse workforce.”
From its inception Mentor Spaces has created opportunities for young people. Dolapo Martins, 25, a software engineer at Microsoft, knows this firsthand. Martins, who consulted the company on its user interface when it was in the development stage, now serves as a mentor on the platform.
“[Mentor Spaces] creates business opportunities for young Black people,” Martins says. “Chris could have found someone else to consult on the app for free.” Instead, “he paid me a fair wage.” Motley also makes a point of working with college students, she notes, offering work experience and competitive skills.
Martins is optimistic about the role Mentor Spaces will play in the careers of young people, during the Covid-19 pandemic and beyond.
“Mentor Spaces is going to be a coalescing of Black talent,” she says. “There are a lot of spaces to find Black people in tech, Black mentors, but they aren’t always the most accessible or centralized, and that’s one of the biggest draws. If you want to give back to the community, you know where to go.”