Rihanna. Tracee Ellis Ross. Gabrielle Union. What do all of these women have in common? Of course they’re dope. Black women are consistently killing the game. But they’re also a few of our favourite multi-hyphenate darlings who have bossed up in recent years with their own line of products. With such incredible inspiration, it’s hard not to want to start your own business, too — and what a time to do so.
According to ProjectDiane2018, a biennial demographic study that snapshots Black women founders, there are over twice as many Black women-led startups as their were three years ago. Still, under 4 percent of them were led by Black women despite them making up 14 percent of the U.S. women’s population. With the latter numbers in mind, the journey can seem daunting, but it doesn’t mean it’s impossible.
“Unfortunately, the numbers aren’t new or shocking,” Karen Young, founder of Oui the People (fka Oui Shave), shared with Unbothered. “If you look at the data on single-parent households, career gaps, wage gaps, opportunity gaps, Black women are at, or close, to the bottom of the rung.”
Ultimately, your success depends on your outlook, Young added.
“I once took a community finance class, and the woman teaching it said something along the lines of ‘your financial choices today can change your family’s financial options for decades to come,’” she continued. “The data is dismal, but your outlook isn’t. Change the numbers.”
We reached out to Young and five other dynamic Black women founders to discuss their entrepreneurship journeys and their top boss lady tips: Trinity Mouzon Wofford, founder of wellness brand Golde and the youngest Black woman to launch a brand at Sephora; Jade Purple Brown, an independent graphic designer; Franci Girard, founder of The Sixes, a clothing brand made for tall women; Brittney Winbush, founder of Alexandra Winbush, one of Issa Rae’s favourite wellness brands; and Dossé-Via, founder of astrology hub Know The Zodiac.
Thinking of ditching your 9 to 5? These ladies might inspire you to do just that.
How did you know entrepreneurship was right for you?
Trinity Mouzon Wofford: I've known since I was a teenager that I wanted to do something entrepreneurial. I think that bug was always with me. At first I planned on being a physician of integrative medicine and opening up my own practice and having my own line of natural supplements, so I guess you could say I didn't end up that far off from my original plans!
Entrepreneurship is not for the faint of heart, and it's honestly far from the glorious highlight reel that's often portrayed in today's media. If the idea of operating your own business excites you more than it terrifies you, it's probably a fit. That being said, entrepreneurship can come in many forms. It can be the crazy massive startup, but it could also be a side hustle selling handmade crafts that brings you inner fulfillment and a little cash on the side. You get to define what's right for you.
Jade Purple Brown: I’ve always been an extremely independent person, and in every job I’ve ever had, I’ve always felt unfulfilled — mainly because I was never able to fully be myself in corporate environments and express my creativity without any restrictions. I’ve always known that, in order to live a life I loved, I needed to branch out on my own. I think the key is being a strong-minded and independent person that has a clear vision and is willing to go through the ups and downs to make it a reality.
Franci Girard: In this Instagram age, it is really easy to feel a lot of FOMO about starting a business because it seems like EVERYBODY is doing it. The truth is entrepreneurship isn’t for everyone. Before you jump in, you have to get real with yourself about whether or not you have an appetite for risk. Most businesses fail and all businesses require an extraordinary amount of energy, time and effort to become successful. It’s important to assess whether or not you can handle that before you start. After thinking that through, you can start focusing on other things like viability of the idea, funding, relationships, etc.
Brittney Winbush: Like any career, it takes some soul searching to figure out if entrepreneurship is right for you. You have to find that thing that makes you excited to get up in the morning, you have to find your passions, what work can you do that will impact the world around you. If that “thing” is something you need to create, then entrepreneurship is for you. Entrepreneurship is not a hobby. I always knew I wanted to work for myself but it took finding a business I was passionate about to set me on the path of entrepreneurship.
What are the first steps one should take when transitioning from their 9 to 5 to working for themselves?
TMW: Don't rush. Unless you're planning on securing a ton of funding in advance of launching, you can and should keep a "day job" while working on your business. There is literally nothing more paralyzing than not knowing where your rent money is coming from, and that type of stress will impact your ability to make sharp decisions for your business. Don't feel the pressure to be all in on your brand so early in the process.
JPB: The first thing I did was do tons of research on my industry and make sure I understood the risks along with the possibilities of what having my own business could be. This helped me to start putting things in place, so when I finally left my full-time job I had an understanding of what I was getting myself into, and a good structure was already in place. I also started to build a steady list of clients which gave me confidence and a good amount of savings to take the leap.
FG: Make sure you have a plan. I love seeing entrepreneurs who actually start working on prototypes or proof of concept before they make the full transition. A lot of times, it’s easier to use the relationships and platform you have at your 9-5 to build the foundation for your business. I’m not saying that you should violate any policies dictated by your employer, but think about what you can do in your free time to test your idea before making the jump.
KY: I remember googling this very question and what I found was that you should save about 12 months’ worth of expenses. When I transitioned and left my job, Oui was growing so fast I could barely keep up, so I realized the smarter approach would be to track my growth for 6+ months to see if I could afford to pay my living expenses while cutting back on luxuries and non-essential expenses. When the business could support itself and me, I was ready! My advice is to save as much as you possibly can and have at least a year of tracking your business growth before you transition, but nothing ever goes according to plan. There’s that risk-taking again!
Becoming an entrepreneur can mean wearing many hats, especially when you’re just starting out. How do you manage your time?
Dossé-Via: Whewwww, chile. It’s a work in progress. It begins by defining what my priorities are and working intentionally to create a schedule and routine that mirrors that. For the majority of my entrepreneurial journey, I found it challenging to relinquish control and grow a team. I had trust issues (Scorpio problems) and also was a perfectionist about everything (my Virgo Moon, lol). But after the birth of my daughter Nova, I knew it was time to have additional support, and I’m glad I started to grow my team intentionally. It takes a village for my passions to manifest in the way that they do. I’m so grateful for the KTZ and Magic & Melanin team. But it took a while for me to get to this point, so be patient and kind to yourself throughout this journey. It changes day-by-day. I’m an emotionally-driven entrepreneur, so focusing on feeling homeostasis within my soul leads to homeostasis in all realms of life, including entrepreneurship.
BW: In all transparency, this is something I am still working on. With my business being so new, there are opportunities that arrive that I could not have planned for and they often require my immediate attention. Right now, as far as time management goes, instead separating my day into hour blocks I assign certain projects to specific days. This helps me with hard deadlines and giving each thing the attention it deserves.
KY: Time management goes out the window when you’re, as my Jamaican friends would say, “head cook and bottle washer”. The simplest time management skill as an entrepreneur comes down to understanding what’s most important, knowing that it can change by the day or by the hour. This year, I’ve started using the timer on my phone to tackle my day. I set it to the length of time I think the task will take, and during that time I do nothing else.
How do you practice self-care and manage stress while running your business?
TMW: I take breaks. I try not to subscribe to the narrative that being busy equals being productive. I focus on accomplishing what I actually need to, and then giving myself time to go for a walk, call my mom, read a book, whatever.
JPB: Waking up early in the morning and getting a good workout in has helped me out immensely. It gives me the opportunity to release stress in a healthy way and take control of my health. I also try my best to set boundaries when it comes to my working hours. In the beginning, I would check email all the time and work on projects during unreasonable hours, but I don’t do that anymore. Now I always remember that If I fall apart, my business will, too, so I always make myself a priority no matter what’s going on.
KY: I found this year that managing my time isn’t the same as protecting my time, and it has been a big lesson for me. I don’t answer emails after 7pm and try not to work on Saturdays. Time with my friends, my husband, and cooking have been big stress relievers this year. Anything that gets me to be in the moment, rather than in the future or past. Someone once told me ‘the past is regret and the future is anxiety’. As a founder, the future is what we’re literally building every day, so having moments where I’m simply focused on being present has helped me stay grounded and sane.
What tips do you have for aspiring entrepreneurs who may not be well-versed in money management and finances?
TMW: Start getting comfortable with your numbers, no excuses. When I was working full-time with a salary, I never had to worry too much about budgeting because my expenses were minimal. I sent about 25% of my paycheck into my savings account and never touched it, and that was all I had to do. When you have a business, unfortunately, things aren't that simple. Your cash flow is up and down and your costs can become insanely high if you're not paying attention. If you're not a numbers person, you have to figure out how to become one, because this is the one thing that your business depends on more than anything else.
D: We’re in this together, and most importantly, we don’t have to subscribe to capitalistic standards of money management. There’s a reason why they can be so confusing to understand; they don’t want us to be knowledgeable in it. There are many Black women who are incredible money coaches, though, and we should share our stories and empower each other. We should ask questions, even if we feel imposter syndrome. We should shoot higher rather than lower, and remember that we are the source of humanity, so we are priceless.
We can study our African ancestors’ ways of managing currency and widen our concept of what currency is, outside of monetary norms. Cowries, for example, are incredible forms of currency, that our West African ancestors used and continue to use today. We can trade our services — you braid my hair, and I read your birth chart. We can pool our money. We can own land collectively, not only individually. Black women are the main influencers of most economies around the world. We are wealth itself. The more we recognize that, the more the world acts accordingly.
BW: One thing my dad, who is also an entrepreneur, always taught me was “do what you know and let other people do what they know”. In other words, find people who know money management and finances well and have them on your team. In this process, you will also learn along the way and one thing my mom always says: if you don’t know your money, you know your business. I’m fortunate to have her as the accountant of my business. She’s taught me a lot. We have weekly meetings, we keep spreadsheets, folders, docs together, and while she’s managing the money, I see everything and I’m learning along the way. In entrepreneurship, you have to be open to always being a student. Be ready to learn.
From your own experience, what are some challenges Black women entrepreneurs specifically may face, and how can they overcome them?
TMW: I think there is a fear that only other Black women will be able to understand your business and support you. As a founder, you need all the help you can get. I encourage Black founders to mobilize their communities AND tap into adjacent ones. There is so much momentum now around increasing the rates of successful entrepreneurship across underrepresented founders — take full advantage of that.
JPB: As a Black woman working in the creative industry, people often underestimate me and try to take advantage of my talent. With the design industry being mostly white and male, some companies approach me thinking I’ll be happy to take on any kind of work, even when the deal is bad. Being knowledgeable in industry standards, especially when it comes to contract terms and starting budgets, has helped me confidently speak up and not get trapped into bad projects.
D: The lack of representation of Black women in some of the top fields of the world, particularly in the Western world, can be a huge challenge for us, mostly on a subconscious level. It feeds our mind the idea that we aren’t enough, that we have to work harder to be recognized, to be paid, to be valued.
What’s been healing for me is taking control of my narrative and creating content that helps plant new seeds of consciousness in our minds. Magic & Melanin — my immersion travel organization that creates ways for humans of African descent to know and return home — invites travelers to spend two weeks in Togo, Ghana and Benin and reconnect with their roots. There’s something about doing so that activates a new level of self-awareness about who we are and what we can create. When systemic challenges try to keep us small, we must dare to be the disruption.
FG: It’s no secret that it’s extremely difficult for Black women to raise capital. I heard that a million times while I was developing my business. What I want Black women to know is that most businesses in the US are not funded by venture capital dollars. There are other ways to fund a business besides VC or taking on loans in the early days. For example, there are a ton of pitch competitions that are sponsored by organizations like UPS, Bumble Bizz, Mastercard and Black Girl Ventures, which sponsors a contest exclusively for women of colour.
In addition, you should think about the businesses that are adjacent to the product or service you are providing. They may be interested in investing as a way of expanding their own product or service. You have to have an irrational belief that you will succeed as an entrepreneur and an even more maniacal ability to find solutions to impossible problems. The odds are not in our favour as Black women, but we are resourceful if nothing else!
KY: I’ve seen two specific challenges to Black women entrepreneurs: our networks and a lack of understanding of the type of problems we want to solve. Our professional networks often aren’t diverse enough to help us get the resources we need to build successful businesses. Stretch your network by connecting with other entrepreneurs. Offer to get coffee, offer to help them with a challenge, collaborate. Start building relationships your network will expand. When your network expands you have greater access to capital, advice, and mentorship. Founders are always inclined to connect because it’s a hard road to travel without a tribe.
Entrepreneurs often build companies that address problems they know personally. If you’re aBlack female entrepreneur, it’s likely that as you try to get access to capital, the more capital you will need to explain the problem and solution you’re solving for. Know your data, know your numbers, know the magnitude of the market and your solution. When someone doesn’t get the emotional perspective, the data-driven argument for why your idea can be a success can help cross that chasm.
What is your ultimate tip for successfully scaling your business and making a profit?
TMW: Watch your cash flow. Don't be afraid to challenge the assumptions that you started your business with. Your first idea may not be the thing that works out, but if you're flexible and attentive, you can pivot toward the right opportunity when you see it.
JPB: My number one piece of advice would be to spend time with yourself, and figure out what makes you and your business unique and capitalize on it. Do the work, embrace the struggle, and focus on your purpose at all times.
D: Focus on growing organically. Trust yourself. Consistency is key. How can you show up for your future self every day through discipline and intention? Get clear on that answer, and follow through with bold action. Celebrate your wins and honour your lessons along the way.
FG: I believe that the key to building a healthy business is having strong relationships with your customers. I’m intensely focused on listening to them and have been working to create mechanisms for synthesizing and responding to their feedback. In addition, I think it’s important to create a culture of operational excellence that allows for clear communication and accountability both inside and outside of the business.
KY: Know your numbers, offer an exceptional product/service, and build margins that allow you to grow.