So far, 2018 has been a year of activism for women. The #MeToo movement included women in nearly every industry exposing workplace sexism and harassment. It’s grown into the action-oriented #TimesUp movement. Equal pay has taken a front seat, too, with major court rulings aiding efforts to close the gender pay gap. And the second anniversary of the Women’s March in January attracted hundreds of thousands of people all over the country.
But throughout these efforts, one thing’s been clear: Women of color face additional and unique obstacles in almost every area of society, including business. Women from minority backgrounds who want to start their own businesses are up against more hurdles. These entrepreneurs typically don’t have a network of professional mentors to support them. They have more family responsibilities to balance. And they have a much more difficult time accessing money, which is obviously key to a business’s future success.
Although these problems are very real, women of color are making inroads into entrepreneurship. Businesses owned by African American, Asian, and Latina women are growing at a faster rate, both in terms of job creation and revenue, than any other segment of entrepreneurs in the US.
We talked to 10 successful women entrepreneurs of color to share what inspired them to start their businesses and what they’d advise other business owners. The companies that these women are leading represent a range of industries and geographic locations. No matter what stage of business you’re in, you’ll be inspired by their creativity and drive.
1. Miko Branch
Co-Founder and CEO, Miss Jessie’s
The Company: Miss Jessie’s is a multi-million dollar hair care brand for women with naturally curly hair. Miko and her late sister Titi started the business, named after their grandmother, in the mid-1990s from their Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn home. They set out to create products that would allow women of color to wear their hair naturally while feeling beautiful and confident.
In 1997, the two sisters opened a salon in Boerum Hill, Brooklyn. They sanded the floors, painted the walls, booked appointments, answered the phones, cut hair, and did everything else on their own until launching their own line of hair care products. The salon, now located in Manhattan’s SoHo neighborhood, and the line of hair care products together represent the Miss Jessie’s brand.
The Stats: Miss Jessie’s hair care line is now in 1,600 Target stores nationwide. O, The Oprah Magazine, Allure, Marie Claire, Essence, and NBC’s The Today Show have all featured Miko’s company. Even Serena William loves the products!
The Inspiration: In 2000, Miko became a mother. “At bath time with my son,” she says, “he would splash water all over the place, and my hair would get wet and curly. Since keeping my hair perfectly straight just wasn’t an option, I decided to give my natural curls a try.” The problem was finding good products to maintain her curls. Miko and her sister Titi looked to the memory of their grandmother Miss Jessie as inspiration and realized her solution would have been to create their own product. Miko and her sister began testing different formulations until they had a product that worked.
Her Advice to Entrepreneurs: “Embrace the failures and the mistakes as they all serve as an opportunity to learn. When I first started Miss Jessie’s I went through times of failure when all I wanted to do was give up. Instead, I learned from those mistakes and kept my head high. Remember to always forgive yourself, be courageous, and chase your dreams.”
2. Jenny Eu
Founder, Three Trees
The Company: Three Trees is a San Francisco-based consumer packaged goods company whose mission is to help people eat clean, plant-based, nourishing, and delicious food. Founder Jenny Eu started making nut milks in 2013 in small batches, and sold them at local farmers markets. She even bought a van second hand for $5,000 and delivered milk out of coolers in the back.
Jenny eventually got her product into small, local health-food shops. Today, hundreds of stores nationwide sell the milks, without the additives that consumers often see in other brands. Jenny has bootstrapped the business using savings and profits, without taking on outside debt.
The Stats: More than 400 stores, including several Whole Foods Market locations, now sell Three Trees’s line of organic almond milks.
The Inspiration: Jenny’s inspiration for Three Trees came from her grandmother, who took Jenny for forest walks in Taiwan as a child. She showed Jenny the nutritional value of edible plants that grew in the forest nearby. Three Trees uses Jenny’s grandma’s food philosophy, and relies on ingredients that you would find in your own kitchen pantry.
Jenny’s Advice for Entrepreneurs: “Persevere. Persistence really pays off, and everything takes time. That is why it’s so important for you to believe in and feel passionately about what you’re creating or offering.”
3. Anit Hora
Founder, Mullein & Sparrow
The Company: Mullein & Sparrow is a skincare company based in Brooklyn. The brand, which landed a feature in the New York Times, makes formulas that are 100% organic and vegan. The products integrate knowledge of both Ayurveda (ancient Indian medicine) and Western Herbalism, using ingredients that benefit the skin and bring balance to the body.
The Stats: In the first year in business, Mullein & Sparrow’s revenue increased 4x and continue to grow. Anit was a 2017 Tory Burch Foundation Fellow.
The Inspiration: Born in India and raised in New York City, Anit created Mullein & Sparrow following a successful career as a fashion designer. After seven years at Calvin Klein, Anit went a backpacking trip through South America. Surrounded by beautiful trees and plants, she noticed the power of herbal healing that family and friends had told her when she was a child.
Taking inspiration from her trip, Anit came back to New York to formally study Traditional Western Herbalism and became a certified esthetician. She launched Mullein & Sparrow in 2012, combining Ayurveda and herbalism to create skincare products for modern women.
Anit’s Advice for Entrepreneurs: “I wish had known that building this business would completely take up my life, and that balancing everything would be extremely difficult. As a business owner, there will never be enough time in the day, so you have create the time you want. You can’t go to every networking event, and meet every person who has the potential to help you with your business. Learn to be discerning early on, and know that it’s okay to turn things down.”
4. Daniela Corrente
The Company: Reel, which Daniela Corrente launched in 2016, is a “guilt-free” shopping platform that helps people make their purchases with savings, not debt. The company partner with hundreds of larger retailers, including Pottery Barn, Nordstrom, Bloomingdales, and several smaller stores, too.
Customers choose which item they want to purchase, how quickly they want to buy it, and link their bank account to Reel to automatically start saving money towards the purchase each day or week. Reel will notify the customer once they have enough money to buy the item and will place the order. A 5% handling charge covers the the banks transfers, order monitoring, and ordering fees.
The Stats: Daniela, recently recognized as a Top 50 Latina Founder, has raised $1.3 million in venture capital funding to continue Reel’s growth. And just nine months after launching, the company has already helped people save nearly $2 million toward items from high-end brands.
The Inspiration: Daniela grew up in South America, where credit isn’t as accessible as in the US. When she moved here, Daniela was surprised at the ease with which consumers could get credit cards and loans to buy things (and how easily they could rack up debt). She quickly realized that many other people, especially women, were dealing with the same struggle she had: wanting to avoiding debt versus wanting to purchase nice things with your hard earned money. She created Reel so people could buy things without a sense of guilt and really enjoy their purchases.
Daniela’s Advice for Entrepreneurs: “When you decide to build your company, you become not only a founder, but you also become HR, accounting, legal, etc. You have to be ready to be involved in all areas of the business, not just an idea. So, it’s okay to fail—you have to do so in order to evolve.”
5. Chanté Griffin
Founder, You Go Girl Productions
The Company: Through her company, You Go Girl Productions, Chanté Griffin produces content for a range of print and digital publications and serves as an on-camera representative for media companies. She has a team of contract workers to support her business and lives by the motto “On the Stage, On the Page, & On Camera.”
Chanté’s clients include The Washington Post, The Root, EBONY, Toyota, Apple, and other leading companies. She’s appeared in dozens of television commercials and televisions shows, including Here’s the Deal and MTV’s From G’s to Gents.
The Stats: Chanté has signed more than 30 high-profile clients since starting her business four years ago.
The Inspiration: Chanté started You Go Girl Productions because she believes in the power of the media to impact lives and facilitate change in the world. “For example,” she says, “the Civil Rights Movement grew and succeeded because television cameras displayed the brutal treatment of African Americans to the entire country. You Go Girl Productions is Chanté’s platform for expressing her views on race, culture, God, and other important topics.
Chanté’s Advice to Entrepreneurs: “Aim big from the beginning! Instead of being happy to just sign a client, make it a goal to sign a multimillion or multibillion dollar client. I wish that I had done this in the beginning. Had I reached for the largest, highest paying clients with the most name recognition when I launched, this would have raised my business’s profile from the outset.”
6. Shannon Battle
Founder and Clinical Director, Family Services of America
The Company: Family Services of America is the oldest company on our list. Founder Shannon Battle started the company in 2000 as a start up mental health and foster agency to provide services for at-risk youth. She was only 22 years old at the time, but already had a goal of running a youth center for kids struggling with their parents’ substance abuse issues. Shannon started out the business “with more debt than money” but managed to get a loan from her real estate agent’s boss to cover the closing costs for her first group home.
The Stats: Family Services of America is a multi-million dollar company with three facilities. The company has helped 556 kids in need of outpatient mental health services and provided them safe and structured living conditions.
The Inspiration: Shannon’s own childhood experiences inspired her to help other kids avoid the traps associated with the family disease of addiction. She views herself as an employer, someone who wants to create jobs for others so they can have a good quality of life.
Shannon’s Advice for Entrepreneurs: “I wish I had learned how to manage my business’s finances. I didn’t follow my books at the start. I always followed my heart and almost suffered bankruptcy as a result. In business, you learn quickly that numbers don’t lie! Invest in a competent business accountant who understands the structure of your business and can help you create a budget that will keep you in business.”
7. Karyn Langhorne Folan
Founder, Rock Creek Content
The Company: Rock Creek Content is a screenwriting and film production company. Founder Karyn Folan is an author, filmmaker and screenplay writer based out of Washington DC, as well as a Harvard Law graduate. She started the company with two partners to launch her self-written film The Revisionist. The film project is a multimillion dollar deal that will result in a national theater release. Karyn also authored a set of young adult urban books that are now a television show called The Bluford Series.
The Stats: Karyn attracted more than $7 million in financing for her independent film The Revisionist, which is set for a nationwide theater release.
The Inspiration: Karyn’s children and family, past experiences, and the issues she sees people facing in the world everyday inspired her to start Rock Creek Content. Her passion is for telling stories that come from the most authentic and organic places. As an African-American business woman living far from Hollywood in an industry dominated by white males, Karyn wants to ascend barriers.
Karyn’s Advice for Entrepreneurs: “Progress happens in its own time, not on the schedule we expect. Sometimes, it might feel like success in your business is taking forever, but the needle is moved by hard work, relationships, and life lessons. Keep the vision at the forefront and do the work—the success will come!”
8. Zenobia Dewely
Founder, Zenobia’s Sweet Tooth
The Company: Zenobia’s Sweet Tooth is a gourmet cookie and dessert business which founder Zenobia Dewely runs out of her home. The company is most famous for the interesting cookie ingredients—like the bacon and eggs cookie and the banana pudding cookie. But Zenobia’s Sweet Tooth products also include breads, cookie cakes, gluten-free desserts, and sugar free desserts. Zenobia’s ships her products all across the United States.
The Stats: Zenobia makes more than 70 different types of cookies. Dr. Oz, Frankenfood, the Today Show, The Chew, The Better Show, Good Morning America, and Anderson Live have all featured Zenobia Sweet Tooth products.
The Inspiration: Zenobia isn’t only a baker but a working mother and wife, too. Tired of seeing store-bought chocolate chip cookies all around her kitchen, Zenobia started learning to bake in 2009. She quit her day job in 2011 after Zenobia’s supervisor and sister couldn’t get enough of the cookies and encouraged her to start a business.
Zenobia’s Advice for Entrepreneurs: “One thing I wish I knew was to expect ups and downs in the business! They’re certain steps to success, and you will have good and bad days until you reach the top.”
9. Lexi Montgomery
Founder, Darling Web Design
The Company: Darling Web Design is a marketing and web design service for elite professionals and upscale brands. Founder Lexi Montgomery wasn’t always a designer. For several years, Lexi lived in Los Angeles and pursued acting, but her real dream was to be in sales, blogging, and persuasion.
To follow her dream, Lexi ended up taking marketing jobs with brands like McDonald’s, Chevy, VW, eBay, National Geographic, and All Def Digital. Lexi leveraged that knowledge to start her own company and moved to Miami Beach. The business had some setbacks when Hurricane Irma hit Florida in the summer of 2017, but Lexi and her team of four employees regrouped and are doing better than ever now.
The Stats: Within two weeks of moving to Miami Beach, Lexi landed a plastic surgeon as a client and sold more than $806,000 worth of surgeries in 72 days. She helped the surgeon gain 230 new clients.
The Inspiration: Lexi went to an event while working in LA, where someone told her that she should be an escort rather than work in tech “because escorts make better money.” The inherent sexism in the comment really got to Lexi, but she claimed the suggestion to conceptualize her own business. Instead of becoming an escort, Lexi branded her agency like an escort service, catering to the marketing and web design needs of elite professionals.
Lexi’s Advice for Entrepreneurs: “Know what your unique selling proposition is, who you are selling to, and where they hang out. I rebranded my agency several times because my audience and angle weren’t specific enough. I would’ve saved many hours if I knew these three things early on.”
10. Lorri Lewis
Founder, The DirectHer
Meet @lorrilewis the CEO of @thedirecther ! Her goal is to be the logistical coordinator for your wedding or special event to ensure a memorable occasion throughout the metropolitan Detroit area. In the wedding industry for approximately 20 years, the Wedding Coordinator for @oakgroveamec since 2002, she launched The DirectHer in January 2017 specifically for the #Encore Bride who has it all together but needs the #OliviaPope on the Day Of to handle all the behind the scenes action! 😉 Photo by @luvdeedee 😍
The Company: Detroit-based company The DirectHer is a full-scale wedding planning service for encore weddings. Encore weddings are weddings where the bride, groom, or both have been married before. Encore weddings tend to be smaller, have less flash and flair, and involve older couples. Founder Lorri Lewis tailors the wedding theme, decorations, and schedule to the bride and groom’s preferences. She takes care of everything leading up and during the wedding and reception, so that the wedding party and guests can enjoy themselves.
The Stats: Lorri has tripled her number of clients since 2017.
The Inspiration: Lorri went through an emotional breakup in December 2016, which was the motivating factor in launching The DirectHer the following month. She wanted to help couples have successful, stress-free, memorable weddings, and the encore wedding market presented an untapped opportunity.
Lorri’s Advice for Entrepreneurs: “Invest in your business, especially an effective, knowledgeable business coach for a service industry like mine. My coach’s expertise and insight have contributed to my current and future successes.”
The Challenges for Women Entrepreneurs of Color
You don’t need us to tell you after reading these profiles that female entrepreneurs of color are doing amazing work in a range of different industries. Their leadership and creativity is bringing new consumer products to the market, creating media across different platforms, and influencing technology and design.
And, especially since these women increased obstacles in becoming entrepreneurs, they have a winning mix of determination, grit, and creativity.
That said, their paths clearly haven’t been cakewalks. These stories share common threads, clearly highlighting challenges that entrepreneurial women from minority backgrounds face:
Less Access to Funding
Going from a business idea to leading a viable company takes money. Women of color have a much harder time raising funds for their business, whether through selling equity or getting a business loan.
Shannon Battle, for instance, was able to buy her first group home for at-risk youth only because her realtor’s boss loaned her money for the closing costs. “I felt like I had died,” she says, “because I was shocked that this … man was taking a chance on me without knowing me.” In terms of equity, only a mere 0.2% of venture capital dollars goes to African American women, and the average amount they receive is just $36,000, a tiny fraction of the $1.3 million average raise for a white male founder.
Other than Battle, most of the women on our list started their businesses with their own hard-earned personal savings. Zenobia Dewely used money from her day job to buy baking ingredients. She didn’t leave her day job until she mastered cookie recipes for two years because she couldn’t afford to have a failing business on her hands. In contrast, investors pour millions of dollars into companies—most of them led by white males—that often times never break a profit.
Less Access to Mentorship
Many women entrepreneurs of color are trailblazers, taking a chance on an idea for the first time. And that’s fantastic for the future of fledgling entrepreneurs, who will have examples of women who look like them taking risks—maybe even in the same industry. That’s key! Plus, mentors from a similar racial and ethnic background are more likely to be honest with you about the viability, pros, and cons of your business idea.
But before we look to the future, we have to set up this generation of founders—and, unfortunately, mentorship opportunities are sorely lacking for today’s women. Nearly half of female founders cite the lack of available mentors as an obstacle that’s holding them back in business. Although there’s little available data about mentorship relating to women of color specifically, minority women make up a disproportionately small percentage of founders, regardless.
About half of the women who made our list are mothers in addition to entrepreneurs. Although startup founders as a whole are getting older, this still puts women entrepreneurs of color in a very different life stage from the average white male startup founder. Family certainly served as an inspiration for many of these women’s business dreams, like Miss Jessie’s Miko Branch and Rock Creek Content’s Karyn Folan.
But family also means obligations that make success more difficult. For mompreneurs, each parent juggling responsibilities and working from home at odds hours of the night. Having kids is often a red flag for investors when women entrepreneurs try to raise money, but investors shrug it off if men are pitching.
So… What Should Be Your First Steps?
In such a challenging environment, you might be wondering what your first steps toward business ownership should be.
A good place to start, no matter what stage your business is in, is to find a mentor who can serve as a sounding board and coach, says Dr. Ulrica Jones, a founding member of Middle Georgia’s SCORE chapter. SCORE is a nationwide nonprofit association of thousands of volunteer business counselors. The organization receives funding from the Small Business Administration (SBA) to run workshops and training programs for entrepreneurs.
Dr. Jones serves as a professional SCORE mentor for women of color and others who want to start their own businesses. As a business owner herself, she says she wishes she knew about all the resources that were available before she had launched her consulting company. “Had I reached out to an organization like SCORE,” she says, “my business would probably be even further ahead that it is today.”
Mentors at SCORE provide services free of charge, or they hold group workshops for a nominal fee. According to Dr. Jones, mentors can help you put business plan together, complete a business loan application, register your business name, navigate zoning laws, and much more. These are the little details that can trip up a new business owner without the right support.
Here’s a checklist of action items you should complete, ideally with the help of a mentor, in your efforts to become an entrepreneur:
- Write a business plan. A business plan gets your idea on paper and forces to consider your company’s value proposition. You’ll also need to include financial projections in your business plan.
- Test the market. Test your product or service’s viability by seeing how much interest or sales you can generate within a short time frame. For instance, how many people sign up on your website? Can you do a popup to gauge interest?
- Structure your business. While starting out a sole proprietor or partner is fine, as your business grows, you might want to register as an LLC or corporation to protect your personal assets. You’ll also need to get necessary business licenses and permits.
- Raise money. Using some of your personal savings is fine and might actually prevent debt, but you don’t want to dig yourself too deep either. Approach a female-friendly and minority-friendly venture capital firm if you’re really reinventing the wheel. If you’re starting a restaurant, a retail shop, or another popular kind of business, then a loan is probably better. Crowdfunding is another nice option for debt-free financing.
- Set up shop. If you’re planning to start out of your home office, that’s easy! But if you need commercial space, hire an agent to help you scout properties.
- Hire a team. Again, starting lean is often the key to success. To begin with, you might need to wear several hats and juggle several responsibilities. But as your company grows, you can hire staff and delegate.
- Promote your business. Your business can’t succeed if no one knows about it! So, get on social media or use traditional advertising models to promote your business with the target audience.
Starting a business is one of the biggest challenges of a lifetime, particularly for women of color, but also one of the most rewarding experiences. When you build something that helps people solve a problem or feel good about themselves, you’ve achieved something amazing.