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Helping Black-owned social enterprises thrive is Chelsey Lowe’s passion.
Lowe is one of two people running the Well City Challenge, a citywide quest to develop new ventures that boost the health of millennial Philadelphians, which studies show is generally worse than generations before them.
Raised in Pittsburgh, Lowe said she’s realized how her childhood surrounded by Black, community-based entrepreneurship helps guide the work she does today.
Her aunt ran the city’s African American arts festival, Lowe said, as well as a nonprofit supporting Black leadership. Her father ran a little league baseball team, and sold merch out of the back of the family car to fund it.
“I just grew up with him always having hats to sell out of the back of the truck, but it was normal to me,” said Lowe, 28, who joined the Economy League of Greater Philadelphia last year as program director of Impact Labs.
“I’ve had the last year to [realize], ‘Oh, yeah, you did have a very Black upbringing,’” Lowe told Billy Penn. “So it becomes second nature to me… you give back to your community.”
Her role with Well City gave Lowe the agency to help award $100k in funding: More than $50k has already been divided among a handful of finalists in the challenge, and $50k more was awarded to a grand prize winner Wednesday.
A graduate of Temple University, Lowe previously worked with Drexel’s Corporate Partners Program and at The Enterprise Center, where she helped manage a $250k budget.
Her career has always been about uplifting disadvantaged businesses of color, she said. Now, as she facilitates a three month, intensive incubator, participants say Lowe’s identity as a Black millennial woman, has been invaluable.
Jiana Murdic, who was selected as a Well City finalist for her plant-based-diet-focused Freedom Greens and Gardens initiative, called working with Lowe “fantastic.”
Freedom Greens is new — part of the requirement to participate in Well City — but she also runs a program called Get Fresh Daily, and has found traditional government grant funding traps small businesses like hers in a debilitating cycle:
Funders want to contribute to organizations that already have paid staff, and have collected data on program effectiveness, she said. But it’s hard to hire staff and collect data without funding.
“It’s very frustrating,” Murdic said of traditional grant processes. “There are a lot of people and organizations like mine… that are born out of being in the community or being part of that community.
“And you know, Black women are going to just do it. We’re going to figure it out.”
The Economy League challenge helped remove some of those barriers. Though funding is less certain — participants do have to win to receive it, after all — it made room for concepts that are still just ideas, and provided groups with funding to collect metrics on effectiveness.
“They gave my concept a shot,” Murdic said of the Well City Challenge, “whereas a lot of the grant funding institutions haven’t been looking for innovation, they’re looking for what’s proven.”
Well City finalist Nicole Kenney, of Hey Auntie!, a multi-generational professional development platform for Black women, called working with Lowe “absolutely amazing.
“Those closest to the pain should be closest to the power,” Kenney said, quoting U.S. Rep. Ayanna Pressley. “And I really do feel [Lowe’s] level of thoughtfulness that really matters.”
Whether it’s a well-curated playlist humming on Zoom before a two-hour business accelerator course, or an illuminating conversation about the multi-billion-dollar hair weave industry, Well City participants said it made a difference that Lowe was running the program.
Finalist McKenzie Nash, who wants to improve millennial health by bringing mental health resources to barbershops and beauty salons with a program called Shear Balance, said Lowe’s culturally-relevant leadership helped affirm her hyper-specific idea.
“It was little comments that she would make,” Nash recalled. “I was like, nobody would understand that if they weren’t able to relate. It also was validation that I am on the right track. Just knowing that I had somebody that was involved that was like, ‘Oh, no, I definitely understand.’”
Hey Auntie!’s Kenney has established a career around uplifting and supporting professional women of color. Working with Lowe, she said, makes her proud.
“It’s a good testament to what can happen when you allow those who really are in the community to lead,” Kenney said. “It’s my hope… that it’s a model for more opportunities for folks in the community.”