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Lupe Fiasco And A Waze Exec Make A Million-Dollar Bet On Inner-City Innovators

It was in May 2014 that Di-Ann Eisnor met Lupe Fiasco. Eisnor is an executive at Google's Waze, an angel investor, and a "neogeographer," while Fiasco is a Grammy Award-winning rapper; the two were united as Henry Crown Fellows at the Aspen Institute. "We hit it off," recalls Fiasco. Soon, they got to speaking about shared concerns: inequality in America, ghettoized neighborhoods, and the lack of diversity in the innovation economy.

They had a shared belief that good ideas could come from anywhere, and began to wonder whether there wasn’t a way to start hunting for business ideas—and funding them—in neglected neighborhoods around the country. As an investor, Eisnor routinely listened to business pitches, like the kind you see in Shark Tank. What if she and Fiasco started their own fund, and actively started listening to pitches in the last places Silicon Valley would go looking for them? So they did just that, pooling a million dollars into something they dubbed the Neighborhood Start Fund.

They began to look for neighborhoods where they might pilot their idea. Though viewers of HBO’sGirls might think that Brooklyn is synonymous with gentrification, that’s only true of part of the borough, large swaths of which remain troubled and low-income. Eisnor had previously spent time in the neighborhood of East New York, and began to look there. As she asked around, though, she found a natural partner in the adjacent—though similarly challenged—neighborhood of Brownsville.

Another entrepreneur, Liveperson CEO Robert LoCascio, had already trained his sights on Brownsville, guided in part by Pernell Brice, whom LoCascio had hired to run his foundation, the Dream Big Foundation. Brice and LoCascio were already looking to establish a kind of hub for entrepreneurship in the neighborhood, and had reached out to three locally renowned bakers in Brownsville about opening a café that could eventually double as a space for coworking and entrepreneurship classes.

On November 13, the energies of these people and others will come together at that space in an unprecedented sort of business pitching competition. Eisnor, Fiasco, and other judges will hear business ideas from would-be Brownsville entrepreneurs. Finalists in the competition (Brownsville residents can apply here) will compete for $5,000 to turn ideas into prototypes, and will also have access to mentorship and free technology services.

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