Two Black women sitting at a table, smiling at each other and working together.
Image credit: Christina @ on Unsplash

When I set out to raise $6 million to build a coworking and community space created by and for women of color, I didn’t need a workshop on fundraising. Rather, what has most helped me raise $5.4 million to date have been the individuals in my network who were willing to pick up the phone and make strategic introductions.

As the US population of educated and ambitious women of color continues to rise, many people ask, “How can we support women of color leaders effectively?” The answers are often to enroll in leadership development and capacity building programs to gain new skills and secure new credentials.

Social capital—that is, the strategic and reciprocal relationships that women of color have with each other and with power brokers…is a necessary asset.

Of course, there is nothing wrong, per se, with doing these things, but at their core, these solutions are rooted in the myth of being able to “pull yourself up by your bootstraps.” The unspoken premise is that a skilled, hardworking person will be rewarded with advancement and opportunities. Yet, this has been shown time and again to be untrue for women of color.

What is needed, I would argue, is social capital—that is, the strategic and reciprocal relationships that women of color have with each other and with power brokers within their industries and communities. Indeed, research shows that the value of social capital starts in Black girlhood, and it is a necessary asset across sectors—from classrooms and boardrooms to business ownership. Fortunately, there are ways to build this social capital effectively.

The Nature of the Problem—And the Opportunity

Women of color will be the majority of women in the United States by 2060, and they are a highly motivated group. For instance, women of color are roughly 10 percent more likely to complete college than men of color. Meanwhile, Black women are starting new businesses faster than any other group. Moreover, on the career front, 83 percent of Asian women, 80 percent of Black women, and 76 percent of Latinas say they want to be promoted, compared to 75 percent of men and 68 percent of White women.

Yet ambition alone has not been enough. Despite our economy beginning to rebound nationwide, Black women and Latinas still face daunting challenges. As of February 2024, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported a national unemployment rate of 4.4 percent for Black women and 5.0 percent for Latinas, compared to 3.2 percent for White women. 

Nationwide, women of color make up half of the low-wage workforce in the United States, represent only 4 percent of C-suite and corporate board positions, and receive less than 1 percent of venture capital funding for their ventures. The Women’s Fund of Central Ohio, a research and grantmaking organization based in my hometown, found that women of color have the lowest rates of home ownership, and women of color who work full-time, year-round, have the lowest earnings compared to White women and all men. 

In short, there is a clear gap between the desire of women of color to lead and contribute, and their actual outcomes. 

Outsized Barriers in the Workplace

The barriers to leadership that women of color face in the workplace are widespread. The need to navigate the intersection of both their racial and gender identities means that women of color too often find themselves confronting deeply rooted and systemic barriers to success.

Many women of color across sectors still report not having the support they need to lead and thrive.

The research on Black women’s experiences has been particularly damning. In a society where women have historically been valued for their nurturing and communal qualities, women who express leadership aspirations are frequently labeled as “excessively ambitious” or self-centered. This bias is particularly pronounced for Black women, whose leadership is often portrayed as confrontational or hostile.

Ambitious Black women are less likely to receive financial support to advance their ideas and leadership. They carry a heavier student loan burden than any other group and are less likely to receive venture capital, philanthropic funding, or career-advancing research grants.

There’s more. A 2022 study by McKinsey reports that 22 percent of Black women leaders in corporate America have had someone say or imply that they are not qualified, 38 percent have been mistaken for someone at a lower level, and 55 percent have had their judgment questioned. Black women are held to higher standards and evaluated more harshly than their counterparts.

While concerted efforts have been made in recent decades to mitigate these challenges and create pathways for women of color to advance, many women of color across sectors still report not having the support they need to lead and thrive.

The Value of Networks

My organization, Zora’s House, focuses on connecting women of color to opportunities and incubating their leadership, scholarship, entrepreneurship, creativity, and activism. Over the years, we have noticed an interesting trend in our programs. While many of our funders are interested in supporting training and skill building as a way of closing the leadership gap, we’ve seen our greatest success in programs focused on building women of color’s social capital—the strategic and mutually beneficial relationships they maintain with each other, as well as with influential figures in their industries and communities.

We are not the only ones thinking this way. The adage, “It’s not what you know, it’s who you know” has become a guiding principle for many. From this work, new models have emerged—three of which are described below.

  • Creating Supportive Sisterhood 

The Highland Project is a nonprofit that invests in Black women leaders who create multigenerational wealth and systemic change for Black communities. One way that they support their participants is by intentionally incorporating intergenerational relationship building into their fellowship program. “For generations, Black women leaders have shared their aspirations and challenges with a supportive sisterhood that gives us the courage to tackle transformation at a systemic level that is not accessible when we’re stuck in isolation,” says founder and CEO Gabrielle Wyatt.

According to research from the Academy of Human Resource Development, “women’s friendships allow women to thrive by meeting core psychological needs that are threatened in a marginalized work environment.” And this sisterhood is even more critical for Black women and other women of color leaders. Wyatt adds: “When Black women across sectors, generations, and seats of power come together with an abundance mindset of what is possible, innovation compounds. At the gatherings…we see what can be possible when you create a beloved, Black-women-centered community that is cross-sector, intergenerational, and includes a variety of different roles.”

According to Wyatt, taking time to create authentic sisterhood is critical. Establishing safe space guidelines, facilitating opportunities to share vulnerable experiences and perspectives, and using program time to intentionally deepen relationships, creates space for Black women leaders to “have bigger ideas, greater creativity, and walk away more whole.” 

While…funders are interested in supporting training and skill building…we’ve seen our greatest success in…building women of color’s social capital.

  • Centering Shared Values

Another way organizations can build social capital into their programs is by centering deeply held, shared values in their programming. This is especially true for programs intentionally created to disrupt the status quo. 

RUNWAY, a BIPOC and woman-led firm, works with financial institutions and communities to design funds and create practices rooted in love. A key element of their programming is “a thriving community of practice for financial institutions, investors, and philanthropic organizations who desire to show up differently and a community of support for entrepreneurs of color in the portfolio.” 

Founder and CEO Jessica Norwood is adamant that both partners and participants are identified based on a set of core organizational values, and the relationships are built from that place: “We cultivate right relationships with our partners, funders, entrepreneurs, and staff. We prioritize values that encourage a perspective shift towards prioritizing repair, reimagination, resilience, and restoration. By fostering these right relationships, we actively disengage from predatory systems that marginalize and erase the experiences of Black and Brown entrepreneurs.”

Even the organization’s domain name,, bucks the status quo practice of keeping financial institutions separate from the people they serve while reinforcing the importance of trusted relationships in every aspect of programming.

  • Crowdfunding Relationships  

At Zora’s House, we’ve repurposed another modern tool: crowdsourcing. Through our membership site and app, any of our 200 members can post a request to the entire community. These requests range anywhere from identifying a culturally competent doctor to sharing funding opportunities. What’s consistent is that they go beyond generic lists and references into personalized recommendations and one-to-one connections that we are willing to share.

A member might say, “I’m looking to connect with someone from X company. I have a pitch I’d like to get in the right hands.” And another member will respond with a contact. Rather than just circulate generic job opportunities, members often share links alongside offers to forward directly to a hiring manager or company contact. These contacts result in job offers, business funding, and client recommendations. 

Independently, we don’t have the expansive network of many of the powerbrokers in our city, but when we crowdsource our collective social capital, we start to transform not only the lives of individual women of color but also the lines of power in our community as a whole.   

The Time Is Now

To create more equitable economic outcomes for historically marginalized communities, it is vital to focus on ensuring Black women and other women of color have the supportive and strategic relationships they need to activate their leadership in their families, workplaces, and communities.

By shifting our focus from skill building to creating space for women of color leaders to build sisterhood, center shared values, and crowdsource strategic relationships, our ability to begin to close the opportunity gap and pave the way for a new generation of diverse leaders, entrepreneurs, creatives, and change agents is immeasurably enhanced.