Inspiring Black Business Owners: Vershawn Sanders-Ward, Founder of The Red Clay Dance Company

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How to Create a Nonprofit Backed By Corporate Sponsors

Vershawn Sanders-Ward has always loved dancing, with its ability to transcend cultures and tell stories with the power of movement. So after years of hard work and networking, she earned the financial backing of major corporate sponsors and was able to create Red Clay Dance Company, a nonprofit company in Chicago that focuses on race and gender issues.

Here’s how Sanders-Ward turned her vision into a reality.

Ownership as an Economic Driver

As a senior at Columbia College Chicago, Sanders-Ward had a chance to meet Germaine Acogny, the artistic director of L’ecole des Sables, a dance school in Senegal that teaches dancers the traditional and contemporary styles of African dance. Sanders-Ward was selected as one of 50 dancers to spend several months at L’ecole des Sables.

“It’s more of a compound,” says Sanders-Ward, a native of Chicago who spent her summers in Mobile, Alabama where her parents grew up, playing in the red clay dirt. “Germaine has two dance spaces, but there’s housing, a kitchen and it’s on a very large plot of land. Her art and dance making have really become an economic driver for that village. I wanted to see if it was something that I could replicate in my work, in my community in Chicago.”

Seeing Africans in a position of power also had a profound impact on Sanders-Ward while she was in Senegal.

“Being around people who looked like me on a daily basis, without many white faces was a very strange experience,” she says. “To go to the store, the bakery or restaurant and see the store owners who were black people that looked like me, who were running most of the businesses was jarring but very exciting and affirming. It felt like I was returning home.”

Launching a Nonprofit

A year after going to Africa, Sanders-Ward founded the Red Clay Dance Company and started growing it from a company-of-one to a team of talented dancers.

While hosting educational dance programming at the Gary Comer Youth Center on Chicago’s South Side, Red Clay Dance Company caught the attention of a funder who nominated Sanders-Ward for a grant via The Chicago Community Trust’s Young Leaders Fund in 2012.

“It gave some validity to our work,” says Sanders-Ward.

Sanders-Ward went to potential funders with a plan of where she wanted to be, and her proposed steps to get her company there and the areas she needed financial support to make it happen. After her first round of grant funding, Sanders-Ward realized she needed to get more meticulous about her bookkeeping.

“Even if you’re only managing $20,000 budget, know exactly where that $20,000 was spent,” she says. “As an artist that wasn’t my strong suit.”

Red Clay now has the corporate backing of the MacArthur Foundation, Polk Brothers Foundation, The Joyce Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts, Gaylord & Dorthy Donnelley Foundation, Illinois Arts Council, Driehaus Foundation, Art Works, The Dance Center, Springboard Foundation and The Chicago Community Trust. “That not only put us on The Chicago Community Trust’s radar but other funders’ radars, and it grew from there.”

Business Basics

Although Sanders-Ward didn’t start with a business plan, she created a lean strategic map of her main organizational goals, and how she intended to reach those goals. She also leaned on her brother who does business development.

Sanders-Ward says she wishes she would have initially partnered with another organization to help manage business development hurdles as she grew her company. “In retrospect, I wish I had let someone else handle the financial reporting for a little bit — while I was a new artist in the field, trying to establish my name,” Sanders-Ward says. That struggle to find role models and equality is one of the reasons Red Clay Dance Company emphasizes dance education and community engagement in underserved communities.

“It’s been challenging to find mentors, to find women, black women who have a business and have done this,” says Sanders-Ward. “We want people to reflect on their own responsibility both individually and collectively,” she says. “I want people to ask, ‘What’s my role? Is there anything I can do to change that, or am I just sitting by floating through life?’ It’s a call-to-action. It’s why I started Red Clay Dance Company, to provide a space for my art making and education.”


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