Sistas are killing it.
The number of businesses owned by Black women has increased by more than 300% over the past two decades. Black women continue to outperform as the fastest growing group of entrepreneurs in the U.S., and the quickest economic force in the nation. There’s no wonder why Black millennial women are confidently leaving cushiony corporate roles and lavish careers to be startup founders. The rapid growth is particularly remarkable granted racial and gender discrimination, lack of resources including capital, loans and networks.
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These three founders are a force to be reckoned with, and for ESSENCE, they share their personal challenges, adversities, and most importantly, what keeps them going.
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Why did you want to found a startup? At my old day job, I was Global Director of Communications & Events. While I was very successful in my PR career, there was no passion about what I was doing. I loved interior design and was dabbling on the side while working in PR, and eventually I took the leap to build my design business full-time. I became founder & creative director of Nicole Gibbons Studio, my design firm. Most recently, I pivoted to launch a direct-to-consumer paint startup called Clare that makes buying paint for your home easier and more inspiring. I’m now on my third career evolution. Where did your business idea come from? My love for design was solidified at a very young age having grown up with a mom in the design industry. When I was working in PR, I started exploring my love for design on the side, first launching a design blog, then setting up an LLC and taking on any small design project I could. I tried my best to build my design brand while working full-time. I had no doubt that I could do this, but I wanted to feel really prepared and confident first. That meant saving up enough money to have a nice cushion if the business didn’t take off right away and also learning the design industry inside and out before quitting my current job. It was 5 years before I left corporate America to focus my design business full-time. My goal was not just to build a design-firm but also create a brand...and it took another 5 years before I launched my startup, Clare. How did you personally feel empowered, worthy and skilled enough to start your own business? Confidence is key. I learned the business inside and out, and was also confident that I had the right background, skills and grit to launch my startup. One of the most important traits of a good leader is being confident in what you know, and equally confident in what you don’t know. You also have to be a quick, voracious learner that can adapt, be really comfortable with ambiguity and figure things out quickly. Those are definitely traits I have and for any key areas of expertise that I lack, I’ve hired people who can fill in the gaps and who know far more about their areas of expertise than I do. Being able to build a strong team is important. What adversity and challenges have you faced thus far? In starting this new business, the biggest challenge has been operating lean and with limited resources. I launched Clare with small team and everyone is wearing many hats and working really hard. Hiring and building a team the right way takes time, and with what feels like a giant roadmap and so much to get done, It’s a constant challenge to balance the workload among such a small team. Every day, I struggle with prioritizing. I am pulled in a million different directions and daily there’s always something important that’s left undone. It’s taken some time to get comfortable with the idea that there just aren’t enough hours in the day and some things will be left undone. Hopefully that will change in time as my team grows and there is more support. I’m so passionate about the company and it keeps me going. Clare just launched and it’s only the beginning. The business has so much potential. I’m incredibly excited for what’s to come. What do you need in order for your business to be successful? This business is nothing without a strong team of smart, talented people. I’m very invested in building and growing my team and building a strong, collaborative company culture. I feel successful when I’ve achieved a goal and feel proud of what I’ve accomplished. Success is when I’m just happy with who I am and what I’m doing with my life.
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Being a D.C. lawyer is an ultimate dream for many, why the career change? My motto is that you only have one life, so you should live it doing something that makes you happy. I wasn't miserable at my job as a corporate real estate attorney for a big-law firm, but knew it wasn’t my passion. I primarily represented banks and other financial institutions in commercial real estate finance transactions. At the time of my recent departure, I was considered a senior associate with an impressive annual salary and bonus. I started Happied while still practicing law and after a few months, I felt confident enough to transition my law career to just part-time work. As Happied prepared to enter monetization, I knew that it required full-time attention and took the full leap. I always asked my friends, "where should we go for happy hour?" The answer to that question depended on what type of happy hour spot we were looking for that day - did we want craft cocktails, quality cuisine, or just a quick beer? I then realized that there wasn't anything out there that allows people to search for happy hour locations based on metrics that actually matter to them, so I thought, I'm going to create it! By the time I decided to focus full-time on Happied, the monetization streams were clear with a fair amount of traction and users. How did you feel empowered to start Happied? Happied isn't my first business and it won't be my last. Shortly after college, my roommate and I started a profitable tutoring company in Los Angeles. At the age of 21, we had a team of tutors working for us all over LA county. This business taught me that if you have a great idea and the ability to execute it, you just have to go for it! Every great company started with an idea. My former business partner Stella Ashaolu, is also now running her own successful startup, WeSolv, out of Chicago. What keeps you going? I have the ability to learn anything that I put my mind to. Quite frankly, I always figure stuff out! No one has all the answers, but I take pride in surrounding myself with people that have complimentary skills and strengths to balance me out. If there’s something that I do not know, someone in my team does. I am also flexible and ready to learn and grow. My mom gives me confidence and inspires me. She came from a relatively poor family in South Carolina in the 1950s, went on to become an attorney (a solo practitioner), and previously started two small businesses in Los Angeles - a beauty salon and a boutique. She taught me that it doesn't matter who you are and where you come from, but what matters is passion, your ability to learn, and commitment to consistently delivering excellence. What challenges have you already faced as an early startup founder? Happied is for any and everyone looking for happy hour. In pitching Happied to business owners, I've repeatedly encountered the question, "What is your demographic?," with the implication being, "Are you trying to fill our seats with a whole bunch of black folks?" I constantly defend the company as one that attracts a wide audience, showing photos of our diverse subscribers and user profiles. I can't imagine that a white woman with a happy hour app would repeatedly face the same demographic question, and I find it sad that even if our audience was all black, we’d have to defend it.
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Why did you create a startup? I was living a split life between Maricela Ferguson-Soto and Spicy Mari. Maricela Ferguson-Soto was the Sales Development Executive for a large television network and Spicy Mari was the On-Air Radio Personality who everyone turned to for relationship and dating advice. My education permitted me the security of being comfortable working a 9-5 PM job, while I was moonlighting and counseling overnights as a relationship expert. After sparking several love connections matchmaking, I decided that I wanted to enrich my ability to add value to singles and couples in a digital dating era. I obtained a Masters in Communication Management from the University of Southern California. From research, I discovered the formula to building a successful relationship and a method for evaluation. With the goal of transcending traditional boundaries, The Spicy Life Inc., was formed to provide self-improvement through effective communication and relationship building. My vision is to spread the S-P-I-C-Y gospel of, “Self, Passion, Intimacy, Communication & learning to say YES!” These are the key ingredients to forming and maintaining relationships. I want to change the way people think about relationships. I want the world to live the spicy life. Spicy Tips were also great for radio content. Kindling romantic flames for others ignited a fire in me that led me to receive my certification as a dating coach. The popularity of my relationship advice landed me on a leading radio station in Los Angeles. Did you believe that you had all of the necessary expertise to be a startup founder? I had this great idea and research to support it, but what I was not confident about how to start and operate the business. What I did was leverage my network. I had a fiancé that was a business consultant, a friend who was a brand manager, classmates who believed in me, and another friend who was an attorney. A CEO is not great on their own, they are only as strong as the people they surround themselves with. Where do you get your confidence from? My mother is my hero and my inspiration. For the majority of my life I grew up in a single parent household, where my mother made sacrifices for the people she loved. Her marriage and children were her priority. A part of me admired her dedication to her family, another piece of me grew up resenting her for sacrificing her own ambitions. However, I now know that the sacrifices that you make in the short term lead long-term prosperity. This valuable lesson is something that I took to heart when launching my startup. My husband was also an inspiration and motivating force within my life. He is a testimony to why you need to choose your life partner carefully. I sought my purpose mate. A purpose mate is a partner that recognizes your gifts and propels your path to fulfilling your destiny. He believed in me and in The Spicy Life. What daily challenges do you face? Running a business is not easy, but it is the most gratifying thing you will do in your life. All I want to do is coach people and share my knowledge and gifts, but I realize there’s an entire imperative business operations side from acquiring funding, to sales, marketing and beyond. The day-to-day business operations are something that I continue to work on. My career priority is penetrating the hearts and minds of my clients, but, without a good team, I can’t deliver services to clients. I am confident that I am walking in my purpose and realize that God is using me to help others believe in themselves and believe in love again. What does success look like to you? Success for me is transforming a client’s perspective. Seeing a client attain a healthy and passionate lifestyle, attract a partner that is equally yoked with them, or get that promotion at work because of better interpersonal skills is the greatest success story in the world. Knowing that I was a part of someone’s journey to greatness is more than I can ask for.
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