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Fearless Fund grant program was already ‘at risk’ before lawsuit

Fearless Fund’s Strivers Grant Program was already in danger before Edward Blum’s American Alliance for Equal Rights sued it in August, according to documents reviewed by TechCrunch.

In June, just two months before the lawsuit was filed, the foundation arm of the fund held a company offsite in which it marked the Strivers Grant Program, sponsored by Mastercard, as being “at risk.” The briefing document noted that Mastercard cut funding to the program after the organization initially made a five-year pledge to give money to Black founders. According to the document, Mastercard was “no longer passionate about the original cause.”

It also noted that there were many department changes within Mastercard, though it is not immediately clear how this affected funding for the grant. The news comes as the grant faces a historic lawsuit by the AAER, which alleges that the Strivers Grant discriminates against non-Black founders by only offering grant money to Black women. A judge has issued a temporary injunction against the grant, meaning Fearless Fund is barred indefinitely from awarding it.

In a response to TechCrunch, Arian Simone, the co-founder and CEO of Fearless Fund, did not directly address whether the fund was still working with Mastercard. “We have given women of color the access to capital that’s historically been unavailable to them,” she said. “Our partnerships with companies, including Mastercard, have given these women a chance to realize their entrepreneurial dreams.”

Mastercard also did not directly address whether it was still working with Fearless Fund, but said that there’s been “no change in the commitments we have made, including our long-standing support of small business owners, entrepreneurs and underserved communities. Our work, products, and services help to drive their growth, protect them from fraud, and create more opportunities for us all.”

Mastercard and Fearless Fund partnered in 2021 to launch the Strivers Grant Program, with the goal of providing Black women-owned small businesses grants and access to mentorship. This was part of Mastercard’s “Strivers Initiative,” which was launched to help highlight Black women business owners. In 2020, Mastercard announced a $500 million commitment to investing in the Black community to help close the racial wealth gap. The organization followed many others at the time who were under a lot of pressure to start supporting the Black community in the wake of George Floyd’s murder.

As of this year, Mastercard’s grant with Fearless Fund sought to award four Black women $20,000 throughout the year; the last entry period was set to close just days before the AAER filed its suit, we previously reported.

The briefing document showed that back in June, Fearless Fund planned to revamp the grant and that there was an “MC strategic planning” around the month of October, where they hoped to help Mastercard “feel special” and to “fuel ego.” Fearless Fund wanted two more years of the partnership, per the brief. That same month, TechCrunch wrote that the venture arm of Fearless Fund announced a multimillion-dollar follow-on round for its second fund, with Bank of America, Costco and Mastercard as investors. It is unclear whether AAER’s lawsuit against the grant has affected its relationship with Mastercard or the other investors and partners with whom Fearless Fund works.

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