Breaking Through the Inc. 5000 Glass Ceiling, Part 1.

Paulette - Founders First

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Two minority, female entrepreneurs – and Founders First Fast Path grads – have joined the ranks of the historically white, male Inc. 5000.

Founders First recently announced that two Los Angeles-based members of the Founders First FastPath program, a business accelerator program exclusively for diverse-led companies generating $1 million or more in annual revenue, have been selected to the Inc 5000 list for 2021. Both companies are women-led; one by African American women and one LatinX and LGBTQ+. Blu Digital Group ranked 1839 on the Inc 5000 and JLM Strategic Talent Partners ranked 4750 on the list.​​​​

Historically, the Inc. 5000 list is predominantly represented by white males. The last reported social demographic of Inc. 5000 list from 2018 reported that 88% of those on the list are male and 12% are female. The racial mix is 77% white, only 4% Black and only 3% Hispanic. The publication was among several organizations that received backlash for its lack of women and diversity. Since the Inc. 5000 is based on quantitative growth metrics, it is not an issue of bias of the judges that creates this predominantly white, male list, but instead represents a cultural issue of founders of color, women, and other diverse populations not getting the same access to investment, access, and opportunities to grow their businesses.

Founders First provides diverse-led small businesses with flexible and non-dilutive funding, expertise and resources to achieve exponential growth. Founders First primarily focuses on businesses led by people of color, women, members of LGBTQ+ community, military veterans, and businesses located in low to moderate-income areas less connected to the traditional funding networks of Silicon Valley and New York City. Through Founders First’s proprietary business accelerator programs, learning platform, and growth methodologies, these underserved service-based businesses have the opportunity to grow into profitable, tech-enabled companies.

Two Los Angeles-based members from Founders First have been selected to the Inc. 5000 list in 2021. Both companies are women-led; one by African American women and one LatinX and LGBTQ+. Blu Digital Group ranked 1839 on the Inc. 5000 and JLM Strategic Talent Partners ranked 4750 on the list.​​​​

Founders First forecasts that through their initiatives, the number of BIPOC-led (Black, Indigenous, People of Color) companies currently represented in the Inc 5000 list of the fastest-growing private companies in America will double in the next five years. In addition to investment and accelerator programs, seeing diverse representation on the Inc 5000 list and hearing the stories of how the founders reached this pivotal goal is key to making systemic change within the ‘old boys club of the Inc. 5000 and other influential lists.

We’d like to celebrate these two entrepreneurs by sharing what they have to say about their journeys – in their own words.

Paulette Pantoja, founder of Blu Digital Group: #1839 on the Inc. 5000 for 2021

“Being gay, I felt that I had to keep it from people. I was afraid of not being successful or work not coming to me because of being gay. I even kept it from my own employees until six to seven years into starting my company. Having your own company and not being able to be honest about that to your own employees was a huge thing for me. And it was based in fear, fear of being looked at differently, fear of being judged. It was my responsibility to have the company succeed. And the last thing I wanted was something like that to prevent the company from succeeding. So, for a while, I thought that the best way was just to hide being gay. That’s how I justified it in my head. Now, it’s amazing how much has changed in the last five years. It’s night and day from when I was growing up.

“I’m female, Hispanic, and gay. I didn’t want to be judged for those things and not myself. It wasn’t until a few years ago that I realized I have the power to uplift and help others through what I went through. And it’s my obligation to tell my story and speak up so that others can benefit from what I went through and learn from that.

“I was working in the industry of home entertainment and then, the Blu-ray format was coming around in 2005 and that was replacing DVD. I saw an opportunity for a blue ocean strategy; there weren’t any quality control companies that focused on Blu-ray technology. And so I decided to leave my job at Panasonic where I was overseeing production and my bosses tried to get me to stay. I remember going into my boss’s office and I said, ‘if I don’t do this, I’m going to regret it for the rest of my life.’ I did not want to be that person looking back saying, ‘what if, what if, what if.’ So I decided to leave Panasonic and I started my own business.

“We were profitable since year one, that was 14 years ago. I owned a hundred percent of the company until December 31st of last year, when we closed our Series A round. I still own a majority share of the company; we have two major investors and we’re in growth mode right now. As the times change and consumers are consuming content in different ways, we are changing with them.

“I’ve grown a lot through the Founders First FastPath Program, and I actually won the Founders First pitch competition. Sometimes as a business owner, you just push important things aside because you’re dealing with daily fires. The Founders First programs allowed me to focus on my business again. I ended up using the pitch deck I created for Founders First to get two investments in the following five months.”

Next up[1] : Part 2 with LaShondra Mercurius, President of JLM Strategic Talent Partners: #4750 on the Inc. 5000 for 2021.

Link to part 2 once it’s published

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