Arian Simon and Ayana Parsons, September 28, 2023.
Piera Moore for TIME

When Arian Simone was growing up in Detroit, it was her “job” to check in on one of her father’s legal clients every afternoon. The client was Rosa Parks. “She was quite a lady, a lady, you hear me? Just this incredible human being,” Simone says. Little did Simone know that she, too, would one day be engaged in a civil rights battle.

In 2018, Simone started the Fearless Fund, the nation’s first venture-capital (VC) firm founded by women of color that invests exclusively in tech and consumer-goods companies owned by women of color. Since then, she and co-founder and general partner Ayana Parsons have invested over $27 million in 44 companies including the restaurant chain Slutty Vegan, the cosmetics company the Lip Bar, and the digital platform COMMUNITYx. Still, this is a drop in the bucket in the VC world, which is dominated by white men who tend to fund white men. According to a 2019 report from the Harvard University Kennedy School Women and Public Policy Program, just 2.4% of the VC industry’s billions went to companies founded by women of any race or ethnicity on average over the past 30 years. Despite the fact that Black women found businesses at a higher rate than anyone else, in 2020 VC firms invested less than 0.35% of available money in companies founded by Black women, according to Crunchbase, a business information company.

But now the Fearless Fund is locked in a lawsuit filed in August by the American Alliance for Equal Rights, an organization led by Edward Blum, architect of the anti-affirmative-action cases decided by the Supreme Court in June. It alleges that Fearless engages in racial discrimination by operating a grant contest through which the Fearless Foundation, a separate nonprofit entity, has awarded $10,000 to $20,000 and business-development services to early-stage Black-woman-owned businesses. “Plaintiff, American Alliance of Equal Rights, has members who are being excluded from the program because they are the wrong race,” the alliance complained.

The litigation is exactly what many warned would happen after the court struck down race-based college-admissions programs—and the implications could be massive, affecting not just the VC industry but also any company or program providing targeted support to a racial group. “We find ourselves in a curious moment,” says Damon T. Hewitt, president and executive director of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, which has submitted an amicus brief in support of the Fearless Fund. “It’s one where everything and nothing has changed at the same time. The law—civil rights law—has not changed. What has is what some people are trying to do with it, then call that a defense of civil rights.”

Simone and Parsons, both 43, spent the fall making appearances everywhere from The View to the radio show The Breakfast Club, explaining that in their view, what they are doing is not only legal but also for the public good. “Making money, lifting people out of poverty, the power of entre-preneurship to do all of that is the ultimate bipartisan issue,” Parsons told me in September at the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation’s annual gathering in D.C.

Many experts expect the case to go to the Supreme Court, where the conservative Justices have shown a willingness to overhaul precedent. And they’re warning that anyone who cares about fairness would be wise to get involved, especially given that this is happening against the backdrop of a backlash against diversity, equity, and inclusion programs. “We see where the Supreme Court has gone with regard to affirmative action in higher education,” former Attorney General Eric Holder said at a TIME event in August. “So now what will happen in another sector? Will we get into the fetal position, or will there be a robust response to say, ‘Not here’?”

As its founders aim to raise $100 million for the firm’s second fund, Simone says she considers the Fearless Fund’s work to be “civil rights 3.0,” a nod to the fact that Martin Luther King Jr. spent his final years concerned about America’s racialized economic hierarchy. “If you are concerned with justice, if you are a true believer, then you also have to be concerned with the economic standing of people of color in this country,” she says.

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