Jeff Cherry, founder and executive director of Conscious Venture Lab
Jeff Cherry’s ardent belief in entrepreneurs that“others aren’t looking for” has pulled him tightly into Baltimore over the past few years.
“We know there are billion-dollar ideas hiding all over the place,” he told the Baltimore Sun. “There are smart people everywhere. There’s just not equal opportunity everywhere.”
As an entrepreneur, investor and Managing Partner at Conscious Venture Partners, LLC, Cherry has spent his career finding creative and effective ways to “apply capitalism as a tool to address equality and access to opportunity.”
Having divided most of his career between New York City and Washington, D.C., Cherry was initially drawn to Howard County, Maryland at the urging of then County Executive Ken Ulman, to launch his Conscious Venture Lab, a startup accelerator focused on companies and entrepreneurs poised to change society. The accelerator would bolster purpose-driven companies, while a fund that Cherry managed would provide early capital for their work.
But, shortly after witnessing the uprising in Baltimore following the death of Freddie Gray while in police custody in 2015, Cherry moved the Conscious Venture Lab to West Baltimore.
“We did so to help combat economic inequality – a major contributor to that unrest in Baltimore – by creating a more human and inclusive form of capitalism and funding [for] diverse entrepreneurs,” he wrote in Technical.ly.
“At the time, I believed the riots weren’t so much about the death of Freddie Gray, as they were about the neglect of the Black community in Baltimore — and places like Baltimore — for hundreds of years.”
By 2021, as the accelerator recruited its sixth cohort and third in Baltimore City, the related Conscious Venture Fund had invested 52% of its capital in female founders and 43% in minority founders. The result of this investment is 29 seed and pre-seed companies worth more than $82 million collectively. This work has unlocked access to additional capital; for every dollar invested by the Conscious Venture Fund, the companies have attracted nearly $12 dollars of new capital investment. In addition, they have created nearly 400 jobs in communities around the region.
Missing out on the potential
Cherry played defensive back at Catholic University. So in 2017, when Sagamore Ventures – the investment arm of Under Armour founder Kevin Plank – partnered with his accelerator to support its start-ups, he compared it to adding the sports giant’s logo to Conscious Venture’s metaphorical jersey. The partnership elevated the brand and underscored its ties to Baltimore.
In 2020, the accelerator moved into a 50,000-square-foot space in Port Covington, becoming part of an intensive effort to build out the 235-acre waterfront project, which includes Under Armour, Goldman Sachs Urban Investment, and local real estate and technology firms. For Cherry, the work is accelerating, but it’s far from done, and Baltimore’s potential is far from reached.
As he explained in Technical.ly, businesses with Black founders receive just 1% of all venture capital dollars, only 4% of venture-capital professionals are Black, and less than 1% of the $70 trillion of assets under management in the U.S. are managed by women or people of color.
“Investors who don’t see the potential I am seeing every day are missing out,” Cherry said. “The brilliant ideas coming out of Baltimore are just one small piece of our collective economy, but these are some of the concepts that will change our society.”