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A letter from the editors: Our Bootstrap Obsession

Let each of us own our success, exhibit the risk-taking, grit, and determination it takes to forge our own paths to define and achieve it, but with the recognition that we don’t get there alone.

The rags-to-riches story is an essential part of the American narrative. The idea that hard work, honesty and determination can conquer all obstacles for everyone often exists like the tall tales of American folklore.

The fact is that systems still favor he who is white and who is male – even in the land of opportunity.

The bootstraps some have pulled themselves up by came with the privilege of first having boots. But innovation is the child of necessity. Many of us find a way to succeed – we do it with boots that were not meant for us, we do it on feet after a 12-hour shift, we do it backwards and in heels.

And yes, many entrepreneurs can be proud of having bootstrapped a company into existence – as long as we acknowledge that entrepreneurship hasn’t been an opportunity available to all. The historic trappings of traditional gender roles, racial and ethnic profiling, and pressured assimilation make it a wholly different experience.

The notion of being “self-made” is an idea propped up by a heritage of oppression that has, consciously and unconsciously, constructed systems that cultivate this privilege and the generational wealth and networks to sustain it.

Let’s, each of us, own our success, exhibit the grit and determination it takes to forge our own paths to define and achieve it, but with the recognition that we don’t get there alone.

With “Our Bootstrap Obsession,” we present stories that explore just that. We take a look at our hometown of Kansas City and the Race, Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion (REDI) training we’re doing as a community, as well as the work of Kauffman Scholars, Inc. (KSI), to cultivate a bridge between our young, diverse workforce and regional employers who understand a culture of inclusion is essential to attract and retain top talent.

To put a face on young talent, founder and filmmaker Simion Collins will introduce himself by way of two video episodes that show first-hand what it takes to build something from scratch. The first episode is on the essential role of relationships and the impact having a black, male mentor has had on him and his business.

We present these stories knowing it requires us at the Kauffman Foundation to live in the vulnerable place of not being the authority or having the answers.

Mr. Kauffman had a great rags-to-riches story – a farm boy who took a chance, inspired others to join him, and ended up a billionaire. While it can’t be overlooked that his story began with being born into the favored majority, he believed everyone had the right to be uncommon – to have the same opportunities and advantages he had along the way.

For him, that meant making investments to break down barriers to education and entrepreneurship. As stewards of his legacy, that requires us to recognize the very real barriers that exist in systems created and maintained for a few, not all. It requires us to be unsatisfied when efforts for equality don’t go far enough to achieve equity. It requires us to prioritize investments and interactions in complex education, economic, and community systems that increase opportunity for diversity, equity, and inclusion.

It requires us to not just talk about it, but to listen and work together to build a culture of inclusion. We’re not there yet.

We’re trying. Exploring the topics of “Our Bootstrap Obsession” is one way, and we hope you’ll join us.

In the coming weeks, we’ll continue to roll out pieces with Dr. Christopher Emdin on the importance and empowerment of teachers of color; Rev. Vivian Nixon, executive director of College & Community Fellowship, on how her work has changed the conversation around higher education in criminal justice reform; Tamar Jacoby, president and CEO of Opportunity America, on the unique barriers for immigrant entrepreneurs; and Change Catalyst, on what it’s learned about building inclusive entrepreneurial ecosystems. Chief Talent, Integration, and Culture Officer Kathleen Boyle Dalen will share how the Kauffman Foundation is approaching the work of inclusion not as an “initiative” but as the fundamental “how” of our work. Our editorial fellows Rashi Shrivastava and Sophia Moll will present a series of profiles addressing if the STEM fields are ready for the pipeline of women coming to fill expected talent shortages.

Keeping front of mind Safiya Noble’s work on exposing inherent bias in data, we’ll also share curated lists of the best social follows, podcasts, books and other media to disrupt your own algorithm.

Finally, we’ll share the results of our reader response survey and our readers’ reactions to the bootstrap myth.

Share in this conversation with us on Twitter, LinkedIn, Instagram, and Facebook, through our e-newsletter, or send us a message.


Our Bootstrap Obsession: Let each of us own our success, exhibit the grit and determination it takes to forge our own paths to define and achieve it, but with the recognition that we don’t get there alone.

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