In Tulsa, a Family Foundation Aims to Advance Equity by Supporting Entrepreneurs — Inside Philanthropy – Inside Philanthropy

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Foundations across the country have spent the past year asking themselves tough questions about racial justice and equity, including whether they are doing enough in support of economic opportunity and wealth building for communities of color.

Such questions hold special weight in a city like Tulsa, Oklahoma, site of one of the worst incidents of racial violence in U.S. history. As many as 300 Black residents of the city died in the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre, and nearly 10,000 were left homeless, as white mobs ransacked a thriving center of Black-owned businesses and wealth. The two days of death and destruction were met by a silence that carried forward for decades, only recently gaining widespread national attention as the incident’s 100-year anniversary approaches. 

For one family foundation focused on economic opportunity and entrepreneurship in the city, racial equity has become a high priority in the past year. Elizabeth Frame Ellison, CEO of the Lobeck Taylor Family Foundation, is leading an effort to give more Tulsans a shot at success in business, and prioritizing BIPOC entrepreneurs. To do that, the foundation is working to lower barriers for entrepreneurs hoping to get a foothold in the restaurant industry by de-risking entry and setting living wages for sustained growth along “the mother road,” Route 66.

A family foundation 

The Lobeck Taylor Family Foundation (LTFF) was founded in 1997 by two civic leaders: former auto rental industry executive Bill Lobeck and his wife, Kathy Taylor, an attorney who served as mayor of Tulsa between 2006 and 2009. In the course of two decades, the foundation has made $20 million in grants to more than 100 organizations. 

Frame Ellison said that, initially, the founders mostly supported their alma maters. But they’d both made Tulsa home, and as things got going, they recognized the impact of “everything staying in Tulsa.” 

Today, they’ve handed the reins to the second generation: Elizabeth Frame Ellison is Taylor’s daughter. Recently, she outlined the ways LTFF is working to make Tulsa a place where everyone can participate in building “an innovative, collaborative, thriving city.” 

Support for entrepreneurs

The risks of restaurant ownership are undeniable, especially in Tulsa, where the failure rate is 90%—much higher than the already dicey national average of 60%. But the industry is also among the most diverse, with proven opportunities for growth. Fifty-one percent of food service workers are women. Nearly half are Black, Asian or Hispanic. 

Frame Ellison sees the industry as an equalizer that “crosses cultures and builds bridges,” a place that “doesn’t care about the education” level of the cook in the back of the house, or a guest. Food is a common denominator. 

Supporting start-ups builds on the ideas of 36 Degrees North, Tulsa’s “basecamp for entrepreneurs” in the city’s arts district. The LTFF co-launched the project there with the George Kaiser Family Foundation, one of the city’s most prominent philanthropies, in 2016. The civic revitalization project also drew the support of the F.W. Murphy Family Foundation, the regional Chamber of Commerce and Tulsa Tech. 

Frame Ellison said the idea of supporting entrepreneurs in the food industry grew out of finishing law school and deciding to open her own business, a cupcake bakery she found difficult to start. Despite the people lining up to tell her it was “a lousy business idea,” she “dug in,” then decided to use what she learned to help lower barriers for others in the same shoes. 

She learned that restaurant entrepreneurs need affordable kitchen space to build their menus, marketing support, and other services to prove concepts—and, of course, financing. She also recognized the important connection between paying a living wage and long-term sustainability. 

LTFF’s programming includes Kitchen 66, a food incubator that provides access to affordable commercial kitchen space and supports aspiring ventures via development programs and sales support. The foundation also runs Mother Road Market, which addresses location, the No. 1 reason that restaurants fail. 

Billed as Tulsa’s first food hall, Mother Road Market gives entrepreneurs the opportunity to use a small shop model to test and scale their ideas without the challenges of launching full-scale brick-and-mortar businesses. Through a public/private partnership, the Lobeck Taylor Family Foundation provided up-front funding for the cost of the surrounding Tulsa Market District infrastructure improvements, to be repaid when possible. The initiative will also wrap the location in robust marketing. 

Or at least, that’s the strategy. Like many plans, they were interrupted by COVID-19 last year. So were the customers. While Route 66 seems a sure-fire path to a steady stream of travelers, Frame Ellison says many of them are international, so were stopped in their tracks last year—along with most Americans. The marketing program remains in “beta testing.” 

Growing equity through living wages 

Racial inequality and discrimination in Tulsa have deep roots, and are clearly much bigger problems than any one foundation can take on. But Frame Ellison says equity is “front of mind” for her and the foundation these days, and she’s worked to advance parity, in part through a living wage.

With more than one Mother Road member experiencing homelessness, the impact of income on lives was clear. Frame Ellison says raising wages was already under consideration, but when COVID exacerbated financial insecurity, the time was right to do something. Mother Road employees are 89% female and 67% Black, Indigenous and people of color—all cohorts that are historically paid less than their white counterparts. After researching the MIT living wage calculator, hourly wages were raised to $13–$17, almost twice the industry standard. 

Costs were originally covered through fundraising and a pandemic emergency assistance fund, a partnership with the Oklahoma Restaurant Association. Frame Ellison’s theory of change hinges on the idea that individual, business and civic activity will increase density and business opportunities along Route 66. The goal is to drive enough revenue to reach a decade of sustainability for both programs. 

Now, the foundation has turned its attention to increasing access to equitable funding, “researching how best to impact pride of place and community attachment, physical infrastructure and economic activity for equity in our district.” Already a partner with Kiva, which crowdfunds microloans, LTFF is also considering a number of other potential partners. 

The foundation has made other moves toward equity in the past year, with Mother Road Market hosting all Black-owned businesses throughout the month of February. Frame Ellison also published an open letter listing their diversity numbers, committing the foundation to reevaluating its hiring and contracting practices, and offering an employee matching program to benefit any “non-profit committed to fighting systemic oppression of the Black community or amplifying Black voices in Tulsa.”

“We are actively listening, learning and identifying ways to put antiracist policies into place at LTFF, and being intentional in our commitment to better ourselves as allies to Black, Indigenous and People of Color (BIPOC) communities in Tulsa and beyond.”

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