Over the course of his three decades in the music industry, Pharrell Williams has gone from the wunderkind producer behind your favorite 1990s R&B tracks to a solo star in his own right—and along the way, has also quietly built a now formidable reputation as an entrepreneur and philanthropist. And as of today, Williams is launching the latest chapter in his ever-evolving career, one that is not only close to his heart, but also his most ambitious charitable endeavor yet.
With his new nonprofit initiative Black Ambition, Williams is hoping to provide concrete support for Black and Latinx entrepreneurs in the early stages of launching startups in the worlds of tech, design, healthcare, and consumer products, with the hope that it can go some way towards correcting course for the lack of diversity in a number of key industries. “When you think about the plight of Black people and people of color, there are a lot of purposeful disadvantages and blockages in the system,” Williams explains of his initial motivations behind the project. “They usually hit us with disproportionate access to education, healthcare, legislation, and representation.”
It’s these systemic issues that Williams is hoping to address with Black Ambition’s double-pronged approach to investing in young talent. There is a grand prize of up to $1 million for companies in their early stages, alongside a $250,000 prize for students and recent graduates of HBCUs (historically Black colleges and universities), with both categories including nine runner-up awards at smaller amounts.
For Williams, it was of utmost importance to place an emphasis on HBCUs as a key resource for investment in the future of Black creativity and industry. “These Black institutions have done so much for the nation as it is, and we want to do more to put them in light, and we want to do more to be supportive,” Williams explains. “We want to demonstrate not only to our country, but to the world, that there’s a lot of magic happening in those schools. We’d like to see people realize that HBCUs are these really amazing, fertile grounds for talent.”
The lineup of collaborators and supporters of the venture is as impressive as you might expect. Logistical support for the venture is being provided by The Bridgespan Group, a leading social impact consultancy that works with some of the world’s biggest nonprofits and philanthropists, while the long list of funders includes names such as Adidas, Chanel, and The Rockefeller Foundation. (The logo, meanwhile, is designed by none other than Virgil Abloh.)
For Williams, one of the most exciting facets of Black Ambition is the strong emphasis placed on mentorship, with plans for prizewinners to be introduced to leading figures within their respective industries, offering help with everything from advising on media strategy to providing industry connections for further investment. “The number one thing I hear is that they need the capital to get started, and that’s hard to come by, but what’s even harder than that is once you have the capital, to understand what to do with it,” adds Williams. “That’s where the mentorship comes in.”
It’s this holistic approach to guiding and supporting young and emerging businesses that feels particularly impressive, with Williams keenly emphasizing that it’s about longevity more than anything. “Black Ambition is essentially just us building out the tools we’re going to need,” he adds. “We’re going to need to search for the brightest minds and the most creative concepts, and the most fertile ground for that is HBCUs, so that’s part of it. And then, when a prizewinner wins, they don’t just get money towards their business, they’re also getting this amazing mentorship to help set the odds in their favor.”
With applications open as of today, this first phase of the project will conclude with a major event in July of next year, where finalists will present their projects to judges and investors and the winners will be announced. As for where Williams hopes to see it moving after that, his answer is simple. “We want to do it annually and see the prizewinners thrive,” he says. “That’s what success looks like to me.”